Have You Heard? NYS Leads Wiretap Race

Categories: Fact Check
We'll never know who they were, but there were 1,190 of them—people whose phone calls were intercepted under a single wiretap order last year by Judge Richard Owen of the Southern District of New York. The tap ran for 287 days, cost $440,038, and picked up a total 51,712 calls, of which about 12 percent were "incriminating." The case had something to do with "racketeering," and it resulted in seven convictions.

We know all this because of the extraordinary 2005 wiretap report of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. At a time when government surveillance is all over the news—from the NSA taps at the national level to the Handschu case, the subway searches, and the NYPD's mosque informer in local headlines—the wiretap roundup is a fascinating report card on which law enforcement agencies are snooping, how often, for how long, and at what cost.

The report covers both federal and local wiretaps—there were 1,773 of them completed in 2005, a slight increase over the previous year. These are separate from the secret wiretaps approved by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, of which there were more than 2,000 in 2005. The NSA wiretaps, which were not conducted with court approval, are a distinct issue altogether.

Nationwide, wiretaps ran an average of 43 days, intercepted calls from an average 107 persons, and found evidence of criminal behavior in 22 percent of the calls. The vast majority concerned drugs, and most of the intercepts were on portable communications devices like cell phones. Only one intercept request was turned down in 2005 (the first such refusal since 2002, and only the fifth in the past 10 years). The wiretaps cost an average of $55,000 and resulted in the conviction of 17 percent of the people arrested.

Most wiretaps were initially approved for 30 days, but 1,300 were extended. The 287-day wiretap authorized by SDNY was the longest federal tap in the country to end in 2005. A gambling investigation in Queens was the longest state-authorized wiretap, at 559 days. New York also led in the number of state wiretap applications, with 391, over California (235), New Jersey (218), and Florida (72). Together, those four states represented 80 percent of all state wiretap requests.

Here some of what the report reveals about wiretapping in New York:

  • The number of wiretaps authorized for use in 2005 varied substantially depending on where you lived. In state wiretaps, there were:
      0 in the Bronx

      3 in Brooklyn

      4 in Manhattan

      4 in Staten Island

      7 in Nassau

      9 by the NY Organized Crime Task Force

      20 in Westchester

      41 in Suffolk

      118 in Queens

      148 by the NYC Special Narcotics Bureau

    From federal courts, there were 30 in the Eastern District and 47 in the Southern District.

  • Wiretaps in New York from 1996 to 2004 resulted in at least 183 criminal convictions.

  • New York's surveillance doesn't come cheap. The Organized Crime Task Force had nine wiretaps last year at an average cost of $315,000. Wiretaps in New York County ran $173,000 each.

  • New York wiretaps caught phone calls involving 1,342 people last year (although some people might have been caught on multiple wiretaps, so that total could be inflated). There were 76,000 phone calls intercepted. About 30 percent were incriminating.

  • 87 percent of New York wiretaps were for drug cases.

  • Eight wiretaps were authorized by judges but never installed by law enforcement.


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