Give police more
authority to tap phones


A state legislative committee has begun hearing testimony about how to address Hawaii's crystal methamphetamine problem.

CITY Prosecutor Peter Carlisle says his effort to combat the growing problem of crystal methamphetamine is greatly hampered by restrictions on the ability of police to use electronic surveillance on "ice" suspects. Federal law enforcement agencies are making good use of wiretaps to gather evidence in drug cases, but state law makes city police wiretaps a rarity. The Legislature should revise the law to make it consistent with federal law and the laws in most other states.

Findings released by the Justice Department last month showed that Honolulu had the highest percentage among 36 metropolitan areas of arrested males testing positive for ice, for above any other city. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo estimates that 30,000 Honolulu residents are hard-core users of crystal meth.

Kubo can do something about it. A 35-year-old federal law permits the government to use electronic eavesdropping if it can show probable cause that a crime has been, is being or is about to be committed, and that a wiretap will produce evidence of the crime. Any federal request to tap phones first must be approved at the highest level of the Justice Department. A judge may approve the use of a wiretap only after finding that normal investigative procedures have been or are likely to be futile or too dangerous.

As a result, the U.S. prosecutors in Hawaii sought and received permission from federal judges five times last year to tap into telephones, and the wiretaps led to 35 arrests, according to Justice Department records. Results were even more impressive in 2001, where 12 authorizations by judges led to 83 arrests in Hawaii. All were narcotics cases. Judges hardly ever deny such requests: Of more than 12,000 requests to state and federal judges for wiretaps in the past decade, four were been rejected.

Hawaii law requires that a "devil's advocate" be assigned to represent the privacy rights of the person targeted for the wiretap in closed-door sessions with the judge who will decide whether allow it. That results in a long process, and law enforcement officers say the suspects often learn about it, which undermines its usefulness.

Because of the Hawaii law, evidence gained from federal wiretaps cannot be used in state cases. Kubo says 70 to 130 crystal meth suspects a year are not prosecuted because they don't meet the guidelines for federal prosecution and the evidence cannot be used in the state courts. The House and Senate Joint Committee on the Ice Crisis, which heard testimony Sunday from Carlisle and other law enforcement officials, should bring that frustration to an end.



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