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2020 Wiretap Report: Intercepts and Convictions Decrease

Federal and state courts reported a combined 26 percent decrease in authorized wiretaps in 2020, compared with 2019, according to the Judiciary’s 2020 Wiretap Report. Convictions in cases involving electronic surveillance also decreased.

The report covers wire, oral, or electronic intercepts that were concluded between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020, exclusive of interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The report is submitted annually to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

A total of 2,377 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2020, compared with 3,225 the previous year. Of those, 1,297 were authorized by federal judges, an 8 percent decline from 2019. State judges authorized 1,080 wiretaps, a 40 percent decrease from the previous year.

There was a decrease in the number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered, with 184 such reports in 2020, compared with 343 in 2019 and 146 in 2018. In 183 of the encrypted state wiretaps reported in 2020, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of messages. A total of 214 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2020, of which 200 could not be deciphered.

Portable electronic devices, which includes cell phones, accounted for 95 percent of applications for intercepts. Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of crime investigated using intercepts. Seventy-seven percent of all wiretap applications in 2020 cited narcotics as one of the offenses under investigation. Conspiracy was the second-most frequently cited crime (13 percent of total applications), and racketeering was the third largest category, cited in 5 percent of applications.

A total of 6,574 people were arrested as a result of wiretap investigations in 2020, down 38 percent from 2019, and 311 people were convicted in cases involving wiretaps, down 88 percent from the 2,699 people convicted in those types of cases the year before.

The Southern District of New York authorized the most federal wiretaps, accounting for about 5 percent of applications approved by federal judges. Applications in six states accounted for 74 percent of all wiretaps approved by state judges. Those states were New York, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, and Florida.

Federal and state laws limit the period of surveillance under an original order to 30 days. However, the period can be extended if a judge determines that additional time is justified. A total of 1,503 extensions were authorized in 2020, a decrease of 41 percent from the prior year.

The District of Arizona conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2020. An order was extended eight times to complete a 257-day wiretap in an immigration investigation. The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in Onondaga, New York, where an original order was extended 19 times to complete a 552-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation.

The average cost of a wiretap in 2020 was $119,418, up 59 percent from $75,160 the year before. The numbers include the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications.

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