District Attorneys Call For Changes in Wiretap Act

March 13, 2012

HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) today urged the Pennsylvania State Senate to update the state Wiretap Act to allow law enforcement to better identify, investigate and prosecute dangerous criminals and to help victims of violent crimes obtain justice.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing today, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman testified on behalf of PDAA noting that “the Wiretap Act as it now exists is woefully outdated, and it must be updated to address the realities of modern technology, society, and the 21st century criminal.”

Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act has not been updated since 1998. Since then there have been sweeping technological advances that the Wiretap Act does not account for.

During her testimony, District Attorney Ferman detailed ways in which the Wiretap Act should be updated in order to better protect victims and help law enforcement identify and prosecute criminals. These include:

  • Permitting law enforcement’s use of reliable audio recordings made by civilians, including crime victims during both investigations and at trial. Audio recordings of crimes, as they are committed, represent powerful evidence of guilt or innocence, particularly in cases where victims of rape, as well as witnesses to murder and child abuse have recorded evidence of such violent crimes.
  • Allowing for target-specific wiretaps in certain situations, such as when specific information regarding a location or a precise phone number cannot be ascertained due to the target’s attempts to thwart interception; and when individuals suspected of criminal activity attempt to defeat surveillance by discarding and obtaining new pre-paid, throw-away cell phones. Under the current version of the Wiretap Act, law enforcement is required to apply for a separate court authorization for each device.
  • Ensuring the Wiretap Act reflects current technology. As a byproduct of providing mobile cellular and data service, cell phone carriers record an active device’s rough location in order to send messages to and from a cell phone. Carriers have to know where that cell phone is. This location data can be crucial to criminal investigations and at trial because it can place criminals at the scene of a crime.
  • Permitting law enforcement to intercept and use recordings that an individual voluntarily transmits to a device legally obtained by police, including e-mails, text messages, and voicemail.

“Enacting such meaningful reforms to the Wiretap Act will help law enforcement and victims,” said Ferman. “The only people who will be affected by these changes will be the criminals who are exploiting the out-dated provisions of the Act to manipulate the system and avoid prosecution.”

Ferman is a member of the PDAA executive committee.

About the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association: PDAA is currently celebrating its 100th Anniversary. The association is comprised of approximately 1,000 members and is charged with providing uniformity and efficiency in the discharge of duties and functions of Pennsylvania’s 67 district attorneys and their assistants. Since its founding in 1912, the association has dutifully sponsored extensive training programs and reported legal and legislative developments of importance to Pennsylvania prosecutors. In addition, the association is often called upon by legislative leaders at the state and national level to address public policy issues and efforts which will impact the prosecution of criminal cases, victim rights and public safety.