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Overview of Electronic Surveillance in the United States: Law, Policy, and Procedure (From UNAFEI Annual Report for 2000 and Resource Material Series No. 59, P 43-53, 2002, -- See NCJ-200221)

NCJ Number
Julie P. Wuslich
Date Published
October 2002
12 pages
This document provides an overview of policy and procedure of electronic surveillance in the United States.
Electronic surveillance is one of the most effective law enforcement tools for investigating many types of criminal enterprises. Electronic surveillance has been used successfully to prosecute traditional organized crime, large drug trafficking organizations, violent street gangs, and criminals involved in various types of public corruption and fraud. While it is a valuable technique, electronic surveillance has a very intrusive nature that implicates privacy rights protected under the United States Constitution. When law enforcement agents of a government investigative agency want to conduct a wiretap over a telephone or install listening devices in a location, they must obtain approval from two entities. First, they must obtain approval from a statutorily specified high-level official at the Department of Justice. Second, they must obtain an order from a Federal district judge. The requirements for a government’s affidavit in support of electronic surveillance application include identifying the persons committing the crimes, listing the crimes under investigation, establishing probable cause, and a statement of time. The government is allowed to conduct interceptions over a particular facility or within a location without first obtaining a court order when: (1) there is an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to an individual; (2) there is a threat to national security; or (3) events characteristic of organized crime are about to occur. When the government has concluded its electronic surveillance investigation, it must take the original recordings of the communications and place them under seal with the court. Within 90 days of the conclusion of the electronic surveillance investigation, the government must notify the named subjects that they were the targets of an electronic surveillance investigation. Activities not covered by this law are consensual recordings, prison monitoring, and video surveillance. A statutory suppression rule provides that the government cannot use evidence derived from surveillance if it was intercepted unlawfully, the court order was insufficient, or the interceptions were not conducted in accordance with the order. 45 footnotes