Maryland’s highest court issued an opinion interpreting the reach of authorities’ ability to listen to the communications of people they suspect of breaking the law. Law enforcement officials championed the decision as an affirmation of police power necessary for effective law enforcement, but many civil liberties advocates and criminal defense attorneys fear that it is further evidence of the erosion of privacy and infringement on people’s legal rights in the digital age.
Challenging a Drug Conviction
The issue of the scope of state police wiretap authority arose when Tyrone Davis, a Maryland resident, appealed his conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Police had obtained a warrant to monitor Davis’ phone calls and were doing so from a “listening post” in Maryland as Davis made his way back home from a trip to Miami. Police heard a conversation Davis had as he travelled through Virginia, and the information they gathered from that wiretap led to police intercepting Davis at his home and searching his car. Police discovered nine pounds of marijuana in the car and arrested Davis. The trail court convicted Davis and sentenced him to five years in prison.
Broadening the Reach of Law Enforcement
Davis appealed his conviction to the Maryland Court of Appeals, arguing that the state’s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act limited police authority to listen to conversations within state lines and that they must shut down the wiretap if the suspect crosses state lines.
The court disagreed, reasoning that such an interpretation of the Act was unworkable given the portability of cell phones. The court reasoned that if police were limited to listening only to conversations inside the state, suspects could evade authorities simply by crossing state lines to make calls. Additionally, it would not always be possible for authorities to determine whether the suspect was within state lines.
The court further concluded that it would be sensible to adopt the existing federal standards for wiretapping jurisdiction, which require that the listening post must be within the jurisdiction issuing the warrant for the wiretap but the conversations do not have to be.
One dissenting judge argued that the correct reading of the Wiretapping Act required that the wiretapped “communication device,” or phone, must be located in the state. The judge noted that the court’s interpretation of the Act allowed Maryland police the authority to listen to conversations anywhere in the country, or even the world.