State law enforcement agents would be able to ask judges' OK to listen in on the phone calls and read the text messages of suspects they believe are involved in high-level drug crimes if a recently proposed state bill becomes law.
Local agents say they agree with the bill’s purpose, so long as it includes provisions that keep the power from being abused.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, said Wednesday that currently, only federal agents are authorized to wiretap suspects.
A provision of the bill would also allow the state Attorney General’s Office to request that circuit court judges order those wiretaps and seal the content of those orders from the public, with the exception of court proceedings.
“This is about trafficking organizations in Alabama that deal in heroin, cocaine, marijuana,” Reynolds said. “It’s to take them from the top down.”
Reynolds said he decided to focus the bill on drug crimes because of the opioid epidemic and the amount of drug trafficking in the state.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who filed the state Senate’s version of the bill, said technology has made drug trafficking and other crimes easier to commit. He said the wiretapping bill would add a much-needed tool to the limited set of resources law enforcement has to stop these crimes.
Because trafficking across state lines is covered by federal agents, Ward said, the wiretapping would only apply to large dealers who are dealing within the state but across county lines.
Capt. Allen George, who leads the Calhoun-Cleburne Major Crimes Unit, said his agents have had to go through federal agents to get access to what is said in phone calls and texts connected to their cases.
“Anybody can serve a search warrant or subpoena,” George said. “But as far as actually listening to a conversation, there’s a lot that has to be satisfied at a federal level.”
George said his agents have to go through a process called minimization, in which they have to know case law, all of the information in the specific case and what they can and can’t listen in on before they start.
Additionally, George said, a federal agent has to be present when they’re listening.
Within the past five years, George said, major crimes unit agents have participated in wiretapping about three times alongside federal agents.
“The ones we did were with ATF or DEA agents and it was large, sometimes international groups that were importing narcotics in the area.
Reynolds named the bill the “Billy Clardy III Act,” in honor of a Huntsville police officer who was fatally shot in December during a drug investigation. He said the name was the State Bureau of Investigation’s idea.
George said wiretapping could make large-scale drug investigations safer for state agents.
“It gives us a picture of what to expect,” George said.
If the bill is made into a law, George said, it could be financially costly for his agency, so his agents will likely do it two or three times a year on larger cases.
“There are groups here that we’re trying to get into and some individuals who control the drug trafficking in this area and on this side of the state,” George said.
Reynolds said he’s like to propose a bill that would legalize wiretapping for suspects involved in crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults and robberies. However, he said, a bill like that previously failed because legislators felt that the language was too broad.
Reynolds said the bill is slated for review by the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 4, when the Legislature convenes, and he expects that the committee will pass it, sending it on to the full House of Representatives. He said the committee passed another version of the bill last year, but it failed due to time constraints.
This year, he said, he expects the bill will become law.
“I certainly hope both sides of the Alabama Legislature will come together and give law enforcement this tool,” Reynolds said.