Wiretap Use Jumps in 2004

The number of court-authorized wiretaps jumped 19 percent last year as investigators pursued drug and other cases against increasingly tech-savvy suspects. Every surveillance request made by authorities was granted.

Federal and state judges approved 1,710 applications for wiretaps of wire, oral or electronic communications last year, and four states -- New York, California, New Jersey and Florida -- accounted for three of every four surveillance orders, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (search). That agency is required to collect the figures and report them to Congress.

The numbers, released Thursday, do not include court orders for terror-related investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (search), known as FISA, which reached a record 1,754 warrants last year, according to the Justice Department.

In non-terrorist criminal investigations, federally approved wiretaps increased 26 percent in a year, to 730 applications, while state judges approved 980 wiretaps, an increase of 13 percent.

Department of Justice spokesman Kevin Madden said the numbers reflect "an increase in the resources geared toward targeting very serious federal and state offenses for which electronic surveillance is often the most, and sometimes the only, effective investigative method."

Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (search), said traditional law enforcement work is catching up with increases in anti-terror wiretaps.

"We're still seeing a huge trend toward increased surveillance," said Edgar.

Evan Barr, a former federal prosecutor in New York City, now in private practice, said authorities are responding to changes in the ways criminal suspects use technology.

"Drug dealers now are making use not just of traditional cell phones but a variety of devices, including Blackberries (search), pagers, and Nextels (search). So most likely these increased wiretap numbers simply reflect law enforcement's continuing efforts to keep pace with both the tactics and technology that is being used on the street," said Barr.

Officials said most of the applications, some 1,308, were for drug investigations, while racketeering or gambling wiretaps accounted for a combined 128 wiretaps around the country.

Homicides and assaults produced 48 wiretap orders.

Some 1,507 wiretaps -- or about nine out of every ten -- targeted portable devices, such as cell phones and pagers.

By the end of the year, the surveillance had generated 4,506 arrests and 634 convictions based on wiretap evidence.

Federal and state judges are required to file a written report about each application within 30 days of the expiration of the court order.

Between 1994 and 2004, the number of wiretap authorizations have increased 48 percent, according to the report.

In 2004, New York reported 347 wiretaps, California 180, New Jersey 144, and Florida 72 authorizations.

While judges authorized more wiretaps, the average length of time in which a wiretap could occur decreased in 2004 from 44 to 43 days.