Wiretapping in 2018: a decrease in requests since 2017 as the focus remains on drugs

Federal and state courts authorized just under 3,000 wiretaps in 2018, down nearly 30% from the peak of authorizations in 2015. This is according to 2008 to 2018 data from the Administrative Office of the US Courts, which is required to submit a report to Congress summarizing the “applications for orders authorizing or approving the interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications.” These reports do not include a discussion of wiretapping requests, made by the Foreign Intelligence Service which are considered in FISA Courts rather than federal and state courts.

Here is a look at what the 2018 report reveals about how wiretaps break down by jurisdiction and use.

A downward trend

In 2018, federal and state courts authorized 2,937 wiretaps. This represents a 23% decrease from the 2,013 wiretaps approved in 2017 and a nearly 30% decrease from the peak of 4,148 authorizations in 2015.

Federal courts authorized 1,457 wiretap applications, while state courts authorized 1,480. This represents a 28% decrease in federal court authorizations and an 18% decrease in state court authorizations since 2017.

Initially reported authorized wiretaps per year

State requests concentrated in New York and California

Wiretaps approved in state court were concentrated in a handful of states. Six states – California, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New Jersey were responsible for 82% of state wiretaps, while California and New York alone were responsible for 46% of state wiretaps.

Drug cases and wiretapping

The specifics on each authorization are limited but the data shows how expansive some of these cases may be.

One of the largest federal wiretaps in 2018 was a narcotics investigation that occurred in the Southern District of Texas. The investigation targeted 149 individuals over 120 days, intercepting a total 9,208,906 messages. The investigation was one of only four in 2018 that intercepted over a million messages. However, none of the intercepted messages were marked incriminating, and the investigation ultimately did not result in any convictions.

That case is just one of the wiretap cases focused on drug investigations. Narcotics were cited in 46% of 2018 authorizations as the most serious offense under investigation. This has decreased since 2008, when narcotics was listed as most serious offense under investigation in 58% of wiretaps.

Wiretaps per year by investigated offense

Arrests and convictions

Wiretaps in 2018 led to 7,498 arrests. However, this number is likely to increase as investigations involving wiretaps terminate in following years. Data from 2008 through 2014 suggests that about 40% of these arrests will result in a conviction.

Portable devices and wiretapping

Portable devices represent 96% of all wiretaps applications, with requests focusing on the interception of cell phone communications, text messages, and application software (apps). This has been consistent for the past several years, after portable devices including cell phones rose to prominence in the early 2000s.

Average length and cost is down

The wiretap with the longest time-span that continued into 2018 was a 697-day long state wiretap in Queens. The wiretap was granted 23 extensions as part of a bribery investigation.

In 2018, authorized wiretaps were in operation for an average of 37 days, compared to 43 days in 2017.

The average cost of a wiretap in 2018 was $66,807, a $7,911 decrease since 2017.

Of the states, New York spent the most on wiretaps, with the total cost coming to over $6,000,000. California was second spending over $1,000,000.

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