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2015 Wiretap Report: Intercept Orders Rise 17 Percent

The number of federal and state wiretaps terminated in 2015 increased nearly 17 percent over 2014, according to an annual report submitted to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. As in previous years, drug investigations and telephone wiretaps accounted for the large majority of cases.

The 2015 Wiretap Report covers intercepts—of wire, oral or electronic communications—that  were concluded between January 1, 2015, and December 31, 2015. The report does not include data on interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. 

A total of 4,148 wiretaps were reported in 2015, compared with 3,554 the previous year. Of those, 1,403 were authorized by federal judges, 10 percent more than in 2014, and 2,745 were authorized by state judges, an increase of 21 percent. No wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2015.

The report said 4,448 persons had been arrested in wiretap investigations, a 26 percent increase from 2014. The number of convictions rose 7 percent, to 590. Federal wiretaps were responsible for 29 percent of the arrests, and 19 percent of the convictions.

Original wiretaps are authorized for a maximum of 30 days, and 3,297 extensions were approved to permit wiretaps to continue past that period of time. That represents a 115 percent increase in extensions approved from the previous year.

A District of South Carolina order was extended nine times to complete a 300-day narcotics-related wiretap, while a Northern District of Illinois order was extended eight times to complete a 263-day wiretap in a bribery case. The longest state intercept that terminated in 2015 occurred in Queens County, New York, where the original order was extended 30 times to complete a 913-day wiretap in a racketeering investigation.

Other highlights from the 2015 Wiretap Report:

  • 79 percent of all wiretaps cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation, compared with 89 percent in 2014. Homicide and conspiracy  investigations accounted for 5 percent each.
  • Portable devices, which include cell phone communications, text messages, and apps, were targeted in 3,969 wiretaps—96 percent of all wiretaps concluded in 2015.
  • Applications concentrated in six states (California, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado, and Florida) accounted for 89 percent of all state wiretap applications. California alone accounted for 41 percent of all applications approved by state judges.
  • The average cost of a wiretap in 2015 was $42,216, up 7 percent from 2014.

The Administrative Office is required by statute to report annually to Congress by June 30 on the number and nature of wiretaps concluded in the prior year.

No report to the Administrative Office is needed when an order is issued with the consent of one of the principal parties to the communication. No report is required for the use of a pen register unless the pen register is used in conjunction with any other wiretap devices whose use must be recorded.


Related Topics: Statistics