Prosecutor in New York City leads the nation in secret wiretaps

Saturday, May 7, 2005

WASHINGTON -- New York prosecutor Richard Brown likes to bug criminal suspects.

In fact, he uses about as many wiretaps as other prosecutors in the rest of New York state put together. Only one other state -- California -- bugs as much as he does in a single county.

The district attorney of Queens recently filed notice of 216 court-authorized wiretaps, a number that one legal expert calls "kind of staggering" and civil liberties advocates say should sound privacy alarms.

Brown says the wiretaps are an important weapon against organized crime, illegal drugs and gambling and have helped drastically reduce auto thefts since he took office in 1991, cutting them from 52,000 a year to 6,315.

The 216 wiretaps -- 136 in 2004 and 80 more from 2003 that were previously unreported because the investigations weren't complete -- were nearly half of the total for New York state, according to records from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The office collects data on federal and state wiretaps, which rose 19 percent to a total of 1,710 approved overall last year.

"It sets off alarms about excessive surveillance," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"Individual privacy is much too important to be taken lightly. We don't want to turn into a surveillance society where unfounded hunches are being used to justify massive wiretapping," said Lieberman, who wants the court officials who compile the wiretap data to scrutinize Brown's use.

Brow said he scrupulously follows the law requiring investigators to exhaust other methods before seeking wiretaps.

"I'm very much a believer in their usefulness which has been proven time and time again," he said.

"The civil libertarians jump all over us, but the New York statute is very carefully crafted, and we're very careful in terms of their use," he said.

Back in the old days of wiretapping -- the 1980s -- police officers would surreptitiously climb telephone polls to install phone bugs.

Now, once they have a judge's approval, prosecutors can monitor phone lines from their own offices. But most of the time they are tracking cell phones, pagers, or other hand-held devices.

Instead of listening to reels of tape, investigators now store voices digitally onto disks.

All that technology is of little use to prosecutors in about half the states, where state law limits or bars local officials from conducting wiretaps.

"It does handicap us," said Chief Rex Reynolds of the Huntsville, Ala., Police Department. He said that when he finds a wiretap is needed, he seeks federal assistance.

In Seattle, senior prosecutor Patrick Sainsbury said, "There are cases you don't do, or cases that you don't prosecute," because of a lack of wiretap authority to penetrate a criminal conspiracy.

Sainsbury said he was surprised at the number of Brown's wiretaps, partly because they tend to be costly and labor-intensive.

"It's interesting to me that he's weighed the costs of having that many and thinks its worth it. I would say most law enforcement officials would think it's not," he said.

Part of the reason prosecutors like wiretaps is that criminal defendants tend to plead guilty.

"The defendants are literally on tape talking themselves into prison," which saves authorities the cost of a trial, said Brown.

Clifford Fishman, a law professor at Catholic University who wrote a textbook on wiretapping law, said Brown's practice was "kind of staggering."

"Without knowing the details or the specifics, it makes me a little bit nervous if wiretaps become an investigative tool of choice," he said.

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