- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) Police and prosecutors are lobbying state lawmakers for legislation that would allow them to keep up with the communications of drug suspects, who create phantom cell-phone numbers and discard their phones after a few uses.
Law enforcement officials are behind a General Assembly bill that would expand and simplify the use of wiretaps so they can quickly switch surveillance from phone to phone, mirroring a suspect's maneuvers.
"Over the last couple of years, as we've been doing more of these wiretap investigations, we've come face to face with what the shortcomings are," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.
The changes to the law were proposed by Jill Myers, chief of the wiretap unit in Miss Jessamy's office.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are wary of any attempt to streamline the wiretap-application process, which is now closely reviewed by a judge.
"There is reason to be concerned that the police will become Big Brother," Maryland ACLU spokesman Dwight Sullivan said. "We want police to be aggressive in fighting crime, but we also need to have the barrier between the aggressiveness and the public, and that barrier is the judge."
Maryland's wiretap laws were last updated in 1988, when pagers were a common tool of the drug trade.
Since then, drug organizations have become much more sophisticated, often buying cell phones in bulk with similar numbers, then discarding all of them after a month, a practice called "busting." They also buy prepaid wireless phones which they call "burners" and throw them out after a few days.
Drug dealers can also get someone working inside a wireless company to digitally program a phone on the company network without registering the number. That makes it impossible to track, said Maj. Anthony G. Cannavale, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's drug-enforcement unit.
Police are also unable to monitor the "walkie-talkie" feature on Nextel phones, and E-pagers, which allow people to send text messages between pagers, he said.
These methods are so common, said Frank C. Meyer, chief of investigations for the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office, that "if they're not doing it, they're not worth looking at."
Investigators currently must apply for a new warrant each time they want to listen to a new phone line. To do so, they must write about 100 pages of affidavits to a judge explaining why the wiretap is crucial to a case.
The changes would allow investigators to apply for a "roving" wiretap for suspects they know will use more than one phone. The same practice is allowed in federal investigations and in some other states.
Other proposed changes include extending the deadline for when investigators have to tell a person that he or she has been the subject of a wiretap. Current law allows a maximum of 180 days.
The measure would also give a single judge jurisdiction over all the wiretaps in a given case, regardless of where the suspect goes within the state. Existing law gives circuit judges control only in their counties.


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