BOSTON (AP) — Attorney General Martha Coakley and other law enforcement officials launched a renewed push on Monday to expand and update state wiretapping laws that predate cellphones and other modern-day forms of communication.
The bill also would change the law's definition of organized crime so that it goes beyond organizations such as the Mafia and allows police to seek permission from the courts to wiretap dangerous youth gangs or human trafficking networks.
Coakley called the bill a common-sense approach to modernizing a decades-old law.
"It's really like saying, 'We're going to ask our local police to still ride on horses while criminals have taken over automobiles,'" Coakley said at a briefing on the legislation.
Critics have raised questions about privacy and the possibility that police could abuse expanded wiretapping authority.
Similar efforts to revise the law have fallen short, including last year when the Senate attached it to a bill revamping the state's sentencing laws but the House did not. But Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has signaled his willingness to back the measure this time around.
"This statute dates back to 1968," said Norwood Police Chief William Brooks, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "Crime and technology has evolved since then and it seems ironic that a defendant's own words can be used against him if he is a loan shark or a bookmaker, but not if he's a killer."
Supporters of the proposed changes say they would help police target gang violence and the proliferation of illegal guns. They cited a 2011 decision by the state's highest court that said the state's current wiretapping laws could not be used in prosecuting killings by loosely organized street gangs.
"I'm unsure of the last time we had a report that La Cosa Nostra fired a round in the city of Boston. But we had a significant takedown of violent youth gangs just last week," said Boston Police Superintendent Daniel Linskey.
Peter Elikann, a Boston defense attorney, said while he understood the desire of law enforcement to update the law to reflect present-day technology — such as smartphones — he worries about encroaching on the privacy of innocent people.
"Inevitably, once you wiretap more and more phones you start to listen in on the phone conservations of good, law-abiding citizens," said Elikann, a former chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association's criminal justice committee.
He also questioned the expansion of the law beyond the current definition of organized crime.
"A lot of those street gangs aren't that organized. I would be concerned that they can show a real bonafide organization and not just one person who might be talking to a friend," Ellikan said.
Coakley said privacy issues are very important to law enforcement and that the bill seeks to balance the civil rights of individuals with the desire to get criminals off the street. Strong judicial oversight and other safeguards are built into the legislation, she added.
O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat, said privacy issues kept him from supporting similar bills in the past, and that his committee would carefully scrutinize the categories of crimes in the current legislation to guard against what he called "fishing expeditions" by prosecutors. But he agreed that law enforcement needs to have the same technological tools as criminals.
"I do think the attorney general is correct, that the criminals have the upper hand, they are using technology to their advantage and we're trying to disrupt that," he said.