5th Circuit Ruling Complicates Cell Phone Wiretap Rule

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by | September 20, 2013

***Note: This ruling was later reversed.  See the discussion here.***

A recent ruling by the Fifth Circuit complicates investigators’ ability to use wiretaps to gather evidence.  In United States v. North, No. 11-60763 (5th Cir. Aug. 26, 2013), the court severely curtailed the authority to wiretap phones that move outside of a court’s jurisdiction.  The appellate court held that either the phone or the listening device used to intercept the phone call must be in the jurisdiction of the district judge who authorizes the wiretap. 

Based on this reasoning, the court suppressed the wiretap evidence in North because the district court judge was in the Southern District of Mississippi, while the phone was in Texas and the listening post was in Louisiana.  Though other courts have interpreted the wiretap authorization’s statute more broadly to allow for this type of evidence gathering–and this decision only applies to the 5th Circuit–the case sets an interesting precedent that defense attorneys will likely argue as persuasive authority in other jurisdictions across the country.

The long-term outcome of these arguments will be particularly interesting in areas similar to the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan area, where individuals often move between Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., on a daily basis.