Do the Police Have the Right to Tap My Telephone?
Police rely on a variety of tools to investigate crimes, including the ability to tap into a suspect's telephone conversations. While such wiretaps can produce very good evidence against potential criminals, it is also a major invasion of privacy and police must follow strict procedures when performing a wiretap.
The Wiretap Order
The police must first obtain a wiretap order before eavesdropping on your phone conversations. This is similar to a warrant. The police must prove to a judge that they have probable cause to believe that tapping your phone lines will help them to solve a serious crime, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, or terrorism. However, because wiretapping is so intrusive, the police are held to a higher standard when seeking wiretap orders than when they are seeking warrants.
One communication that is generally exempt from the wiretap order requirement is phone conversations from prison. Prisoners have a greatly reduced expectation of privacy and cannot expect that their phone conversations will remain private. For this reason, some criminal attorneys choose to meet their clients in person face to face, to try and ensure that their communication is private.
Restrictions on Wiretapping
Wiretapping orders are often restricted in order to minimize any invasion of privacy. In particular, wiretapping orders usually expire after a certain period of time, so the police cannot keep listening forever. Police are also required to limit wiretapping only to phone conversations that are likely to yield evidence against the suspect.
Pen Registers and Tap and Traces
Two other investigative methods are "pen registers" and "tap and traces." Pen registers record all numbers dialed from a particular phone line. Tap and traces record all the numbers that call a particular phone line. Since these only record phone numbers and not the actual conversations, they are considered less of a privacy intrusion and the police do not need to get a wiretap order first.
To find out more about what the police can do while investigating a crime, take a look at FindLaw's Search and Seizure section.