Federal and state courts reported a combined 6 percent decrease in authorized wiretaps in 2021, compared with 2020, according to the Judiciary’s 2021 Wiretap Report. But arrests and convictions in cases involving electronic surveillance increased.
The report covers wire, oral, or electronic intercepts that were concluded between Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2021, exclusive of interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The report is submitted annually to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
A total of 2,245 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2021, compared with 2,377 the previous year. Of those, 1,102 were authorized by federal judges, a 15 percent decline from 2020. State judges authorized 1,143 wiretaps, a 6 percent increase from the previous year.
Portable electronic devices, which includes cell phones, accounted for 94 percent of applications for intercepts.
There was a decrease in the number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered, with 176 such reports in 2021, compared with 184 in 2020 and 343 in 2019. In 171 of the encrypted state wiretaps reported in 2021, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of messages. A total of 183 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2021, of which 161 could not be deciphered.
Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of crime investigated using intercepts. Seventy-nine percent of all wiretap applications in 2021 cited narcotics as one of the offenses under investigation. Conspiracy was the second-most frequently cited crime (11 percent of total applications), and homicide and assault was the third largest category, cited in 5 percent of applications.
A total of 8,314 people were arrested as a result of wiretap investigations in 2021, up 26 percent from 2020, and 946 people were convicted in cases involving wiretaps, up 204 percent from the year before.
The Southern District of Texas authorized the most federal wiretaps, accounting for about 5 percent of applications approved by federal judges. Applications in six states accounted for 80 percent of all wiretaps approved by state judges. Those states were California, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, and Florida.
Federal and state laws limit the period of surveillance under an original order to 30 days. However, the period can be extended if a judge determines that additional time is justified. A total of 1,437 extensions were authorized in 2021, a decrease of 4 percent from the prior year.
The District of Massachusetts conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2021. An order was extended 10 times to complete a 330-day wiretap in a narcotics investigation. The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in Nassau, New York, where an original order was extended 14 times to complete a 383-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation.
The average cost of a wiretap in 2021 was $161,818, up 35 percent from the year before. The numbers include the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications.
The Administrative Office is required by statute to report annually to Congress by June 30 on the number and nature of wiretaps concluded in the prior year.
No report to the Administrative Office is needed when an order is issued with the consent of one of the principal parties to the communication. No report is required for the use of a pen register unless the pen register is used in conjunction with any other wiretap devices whose use must be recorded.
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