SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — CBS13 received exclusive and unprecedented access to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s wiretapping program.
The department says while they have the ability to listen to phone calls, investigators say it’s a rarely tool of last resort that has a high threshold to meet before it can be used.
In a nondescript room at an undisclosed location, Sgt. Dan Morrissey says cameras haven’t been allowed inside the building in the 17 years since it’s been operating.
CBS13’s Nick Janes sat down for a first-hand look and listen. While the call wasn’t real, the scenario wasn’t far from reality. Most of the department’s wiretaps involve drug cases.
But the sheriff’s department says wiretaps are actually very rare and used as a last resort. Their numbers show three wiretaps in 2012, six in 2013 and just one in 2014 so far.
Morrissey explains part of the reason it’s seldom used is because each one costs more than $30,000.
“We can’t use it for every single case, not that we would, because it needs so much effort to get done,” he said.
Only large-scale drug cases, murders, kidnapping, gang-related cases or weapons of mass destruction qualify for the wiretapping. There is also a strict high-standard of proof required to get one.
Investigators would have to establish probable cause and identify whose conversations would be intercepted, as well as showing that conventional investigative techniques were tried and field. The duration must last no more than 30 days.
Even after all of that, the application must be reviewed by the sheriff and the district attorney before it goes to a judge for approval.
“This is an absolute, last-resort situation where we’ve proven there’s nothing else we can do,” Morrissey said.
Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about emerging portable technologies that theoretically enable law enforcement to listen to just about anyone.
The sheriff’s department says its wiretaps are specifically targeted to suspects.
“We’ve done very few wiretaps and when it comes to actually doing electronic intercepts, the equipment we have here and the equipment in this room is the only place in the sheriff’s department that we can actually intercept conversations,” Morrissey said.
The law also requires the sheriff’s department to notify anyone whose conversations were recorded within 90 days of the end of a wiretap. That includes anyone a suspect spoke to as well.
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