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Wiretap Report 2012

This report covers intercepts concluded between January 1, 2012, and December 31, 2012, and provides supplementary information on arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts concluded in prior years.

Forty-eight jurisdictions (the federal government, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and 44 states) currently have laws that authorize courts to issue orders permitting wire, oral, or electronic surveillance. Table 1 shows that a total of 25 jurisdictions reported using at least one of these types of surveillance as an investigative tool during 2012.

Summary and Analysis of Reports by Judges

The number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2012 increased 24 percent from 2011. A total of 3,395 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2012–1,354 authorized by federal judges and 2,041 by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2011, the number approved by federal judges increased 71 percent in 2012, and the number approved by state judges rose 5 percent. Two state wiretap applications were denied in 2012.

In 24 states, a total of 119 separate local jurisdictions (including counties, cities, and judicial districts) reported wiretap applications for 2012. Applications in California, New York, and Nevada accounted for 69 percent of all applications approved by state judges. Seventy-seven federal jurisdictions submitted reports for 2012. The Northern District of Illinois authorized the most federal wiretaps (90), approximately 7 percent of total applications approved by federal judges.

Federal and state judges authorized 716 and 130 wiretaps, respectively, for which the AO received no corresponding data from prosecuting officials. Wiretap Tables A-1 and B-1 (available online after July 15, 2013) contain information from all judge and prosecutor reports submitted for 2012. The entry "NP" appears in these tables whenever a prosecutor's report was not submitted. Some of the prosecutors' reports were received too late to include in this document, and some prosecutors may have delayed filing reports to avoid jeopardizing ongoing investigations. Information about these wiretaps will appear in future reports.

Intercept Orders, Extensions, and Locations

Table 2 presents the number of intercept orders issued in each jurisdiction that provided reports, the number of extensions granted, the average lengths of the original periods authorized and any extensions, the total number of days in operation, and the categories of the locations of the communications intercepted. Most state laws limit the period of surveillance under an original order to 30 days. This period, however, can be lengthened by one or more extensions if the authorizing judge determines that additional time is justified.

During 2012, the average length of an original authorization was 30 days, one day longer than the average length in 2011. In total, 1,932 extensions were requested and authorized in 2012, an increase of 9 percent. The average length of an extension was 29 days. For federal intercepts terminated in 2012, the longest intercept occurred in the Western District of Washington, where the original order was extended five times to complete a 180-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation. The longest state wiretap, used in a narcotics investigation conducted by Queens County, New York, was employed for a total of 580 days. The second-longest state wiretap, also in Queens County, was used in a usury investigation for a total of 564 days.

The most frequently noted category of location in wiretap applications was "portable device," a category that includes cellular telephones and digital pagers. In recent years, the number of wiretaps involving fixed locations has declined as the use of mobile communications, including text messaging from cellular telephones, has become increasingly widespread. In 2012, 97 percent (3,292 wiretaps) of all authorized wiretaps were designated as portable devices.

Prosecutors, upon a showing of probable cause to believe that the party being investigated is avoiding intercepts at a particular site, may use "roving" wiretaps to target specific persons by using electronic devices at multiple locations rather than a specific telephone or location (see 18 U.S.C. § 2518(11)). In 2012, two federal wiretaps and five state wiretaps were designated as roving.

Criminal Offenses

Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offenses investigated using wiretaps. Table 3 indicates that 87 percent of all applications for intercepts (2,967 wiretaps) in 2012 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation. Homicide, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified as the most serious offense in more than 3 percent of applications. Racketeering, the third-most frequently cited crime, was specified in less than 3 percent of applications. Many applications for court orders revealed that multiple criminal offenses were under investigation, but Table 3 includes only the most serious criminal offense listed on an application.

Lengths and Numbers of Intercepts

In 2012, installed wiretaps were in operation for an average of 39 days, 3 days below the average in 2011. The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred in the Western District of Missouri, where a narcotics investigation involving cellular telephones resulted in the interception of 34,261 messages over 60 days. The second-highest number of intercepts stemmed from a cellular telephone wiretap for a narcotics investigation in the District of Maine. This wiretap, active for 55 days, resulted in a total of 32,578 interceptions, including 18,500 incriminating interceptions.

The state wiretap with the most intercepts was a 30-day wiretap in a narcotics investigation in Riverside County, California, which involved cell phone interceptions that resulted in the interception of 200,942 messages. Fourteen percent of the messages intercepted were incriminating. Another 30-day wiretap installed in the same jurisdiction generated 185,268 cellular telephone interceptions, of which 12 percent were incriminating.


Encryption was reported for 15 wiretaps in 2012 and for 7 wiretaps conducted during previous years. In four of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. This is the first time that jurisdictions have reported that encryption prevented officials from obtaining the plain text of the communications since the AO began collecting encryption data in 2001.

Cost of Intercepts

Table 5 provides a summary of expenses related to wiretaps in 2012. The expenditures reported reflect the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications for the 2,247 authorizations for which reports included cost data. The average cost of intercept devices in 2012 was $50,452, up 2 percent from the average cost in 2011. For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2012, the average cost was $57,540, a 20 percent decrease from 2011. The average cost of federal wiretaps varied widely from a low of $5,260 in the Southern District of Iowa to a high of $872,841 in the Eastern District of Washington. The average cost of a state wiretap ranged from a low of $176 in Burlington County, New Jersey, to a high of $575,231 in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

Methods of Surveillance

The three major categories of surveillance are wire, oral, and electronic communications. Table 6 presents the type of surveillance method used for each intercept installed. The most common method reported was wire surveillance that used a telephone (land line, cellular, cordless, or mobile). Telephone wiretaps accounted for 95 percent (2,381 cases) of the 2,501 intercepts installed in 2012, the majority of them involving cellular telephones.

Arrests and Convictions

Data on individuals arrested and convicted as a result of interceptions reported as terminated are presented in Table 6. As of December 31, 2012, a total of 3,743 persons had been arrested (up 6 percent from 2011), and 455 persons had been convicted (down 2 percent from 2011). Federal wiretaps were responsible for 34 percent of the arrests and 25 percent of the convictions arising from wiretaps for this period. The Central District of California reported the largest number of arrests (139) for a federal jurisdiction, and the Western District of Texas reported the most convictions (27). The Central District of California also reported the most arrests for an individual federal wiretap in 2012; a wiretap used in a murder investigation in that district resulted in the arrest of 52 individuals and 4 convictions.

At the state level, Riverside County, California, reported the largest number of arrests (200). Maricopa County, Arizona, which reported the second-largest number of arrests (144), had the highest number of convictions (61) for any state jurisdiction in 2012. A state wiretap in Monmouth County, New Jersey, led to the arrest of 63 individuals on racketeering charges. A narcotics wiretap in Queens County, New York, reported this year for a previous reporting period led to the arrest of 160 individuals and the conviction of 140 individuals.

Summary of Reports for Years Ending December 31, 2002 through December 31, 2012

Table 7 presents data on intercepts reported each year from 2002 to 2012. Authorized intercept applications reported by year increased 120 percent between 2002 and 2012 (the total for 2002 was revised after initial publication). The majority of wiretaps have consistently been used for drug crime investigations, which accounted for 77 percent of intercepts in 2002 (1,052 applications) and 87 percent in 2012 (2,967 applications). Table 9 presents the total numbers of arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts terminated in calendar years 2002 through 2012.

Supplementary Reports

Under 18 U.S.C. § 2519(2), prosecuting officials must file supplementary reports on additional court or police activity occurring as a result of intercepts reported in prior years. Because many wiretap orders are related to large-scale criminal investigations that cross county and state boundaries, supplemental reports are necessary to fulfill reporting requirements. Arrests, trials, and convictions resulting from these interceptions often do not occur within the same year in which the intercepts were first reported. Table 8 shows that a total of 4,774 arrests, 2,608 convictions, and additional costs of $78,506,714 arose from and were reported for wiretaps completed in previous years. Seventy percent of the supplemental reports of additional activity in 2012 involved wiretaps terminated in 2011. Interceptions concluded in 2011 led to 65 percent of arrests, 57 percent of convictions, and 62 percent of expenditures noted in the supplementary reports.

Comments from Prosecutors

Federal and state prosecutors often discuss the importance of wiretap surveillance as an investigative tool. A wiretap in the Eastern District of California uncovered incriminating cellular telephone communications and text messages that led to the arrest of 32 individuals and the seizure of 19 vehicles, 35 firearms, $650,000 in cash, approximately 5,000 marijuana plants, and about 200 pounds of processed marijuana. At the state level, a wiretap in Orange County, California, was instrumental in solving a cold homicide case that occurred in 1988. Without the interceptions, the targeted subjects probably would not have been arrested and would have escaped prosecution. A wiretap reported for a previous year in a larceny investigation in Queens County, New York, revealed that a "sophisticated" group of individuals were counterfeiting checks, money orders, and credit cards that were then used to commit grand larceny and fraud. Credit-card making machines and counterfeit credit cards were seized, and 12 individuals were apprehended. Several separate state jurisdictions reported that interceptions were instrumental in uncovering drug-trafficking organizations operating in the United States.

Appendix Tables
Title Publication Table Number Reporting Period Report Name
Intercepts of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Authorized by U.S. District Courts and Terminated Wire A1 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire A1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (xlsx, 334.27 KB)
Intercepts of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Authorized by State Courts and Terminated Wire B1 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire B1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (xlsx, 337.67 KB)
Title Publication Table Number Reporting Period Report Name
Jurisdictions with Statutes Authorizing the Interception of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Effective Wire 1 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 1—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 46.81 KB)
Intercept Orders Issued by Judges Wire 2 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 2—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 59.77 KB)
Major Offenses for Which Court-Authorized Intercepts Were Granted Wire 3 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 3—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 114.34 KB)
Interceptions of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Wire 4 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 4—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 184.62 KB)
Average Cost per Order Wire 5 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 5—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 112.36 KB)
Types of Surveillance Used, Arrests, and Convictions for Intercepts Installed Wire 6 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 6—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 69.37 KB)
Authorized Intercepts Granted Wire 7 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 7—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 46.16 KB)
Supplementary Data for Intercepts Terminated in Prior Years as Reported Wire 8 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 8—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 110.12 KB)
Arrests and Convictions Resulting from Intercepts Installed Wire 9 December 31, 2012 Wiretap Download Table Wire 9—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2012) (pdf, 40.92 KB)