Wiretapping is a crime-fighting tool that local authorities are now using more frequently.
A report to the state Legislature revealed Hawaii judges granted three wiretap orders in 2016. All were requested by Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John Kim.
We dug into decades worth of records and looked at the number of wiretaps granted by Hawaii judges. That number was mostly zero up until just recently.
From July 1, 2014 to Dec. 31, 2015, there were 13 pen register orders (an electronic device that records all numbers called from a particular telephone line).
Twelve of those orders were requested by Maui County’s Department of the Prosecuting Attorney. One was requested by the Hawaii County Police Department.
In the recent case, Maui authorities specifically ordered wiretapping for “Conspiracy to Commit Methamphetamine Trafficking.” The orders were granted, and investigators conducted the wiretapping from April 4 through May 4, 2016, and May 4 through June 1, 2016.
A secured location within Maui Police Department’s Kihei station was used as headquarters for intercepting communication. Investigators intercepted hundreds of phone calls and text messages of 33 people.
The wiretapping resulted in 77 calls and 323 text messages of incriminating evidence into crystal methamphetamine trafficking. Maui police arrested 67 people on drug charges.
The department told KHON2 it could not comment on the investigation just yet. Meanwhile, the prosecuting attorney’s office says no one has been charged so far, because they’re still analyzing the records.
Ken Lawson, a professor with the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, tells us wiretapping is a last-resort tactic for authorities to nail down suspects.
“It’s often used in drug conspiracy cases, terrorism cases, cases where you’re trying to catch people in organized crime,” explained Lawson.
But, he says, police need solid evidence for a judge to grant the wiretap.
“The police have to say, ‘Listen judge. Here’s the evidence that gives me probable cause to tap these peoples phone lines. It’s going to produce evidence of a crime, or
criminal conspiracy, i.e., meth,'” Lawson explained. “They normally have informants saying, ‘Yes, I get my meth from so-and-so and I call him up.’ Evidence like that for a judge to say okay, there’s enough evidence to allow you to tap this phone.”
Lawson adds wiretapping is an invasion of privacy, and that’s why there are limits. A judge will allow investigators to wiretap during specific times and only on calls that relate to the investigation.
“You can only listen to certain conversations — one you believe is relevant to the investigation. If a person is calling their mom, police aren’t supposed to listen to that,” said Lawson.
Lawson says wiretapping is common in other states, but not in Hawaii.
“It takes a lot to get a wiretap warrant, because police also have to show, ‘Look, judge, we did everything we could to find evidence all kinds of ways. This is the only way we can get these individuals who are conspiring to buy illegal drugs in Hawaii,'” he said.
Wiretapping comes at a price. The Senate was briefed on how much two months of wire-tapping cost in 2016: approximately $150,000 in personnel costs and approximately $11,000 in resource costs, including installation fees, supplies, and equipment.