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Life Imitating Art - Interpreting Information from Electronic Surveillances (From Critical Issues in Criminal Investigation, P 53-61, 1984, Michael Palmiotto, ed. - See NCJ-99323)

NCJ Number
K Schlegel
Date Published
9 pages
Focusing on problems of interpretation, this article critically examines the utility of electronic surveillance as a means for collecting evidence.
While proponents of wiretaps and other forms of electronic monitoring proclaim their effectiveness, the data generally do not support this position. Such evidence suffers from three major problems: recognition, ambiguity, and validity. Such evidence is seldom as clear or factual as claimed. Conversations tend to be fragmented and nebulous. They often involve lies, boasts, and exaggerations that may not reflect the true nature of the crime, assuming there was a crime. Moreover, they often contain words and phrases decipherable only by law enforcement or criminal experts, and such interpretations often require a substantial leap of faith. While previously officers were permitted to summarize and edit conversations to produce the most persuasive evidence of guilt, juries usually are now given the opportunity of hearing the conversations verbatim to reduce potential biases and to permit a defendant to explain the recorded statements. Where conversations are incriminating, but worthless in and of themselves in the court, they differ little from the evidence that may be picked up on the streets or through informers. The questionable effectiveness of electronic surveillance and greater initial cost than street investigations/informants indicate that the usefulness of this technique should be reevaluated. Included are 23 notes and 14 references.


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