By Craig Monger
A pre-filed bill in the Alabama House of Representatives would allow for wiretapping of suspected drug traffickers.
Rep. Rex Reynolds introduced legislation that would permit the state use of legal electronic communication interception in cases that involve drug trafficking.
Similar legislation has passed the House for the past three regular sessions but has never made it through the Senate.
Currently, the only legal method of wiretapping in the state comes through federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and DEA. The new legislation would provide for state law enforcement to have the capabilities to intercept communications via phone, internet, and related communications. The bill would allow for an officer or agent of the law to obtain authorization for a wiretap by submitting a request to the Attorney General (AG); the AG would then review the evidence and, upon determining probable cause, would submit the request to a judge in the district of the alleged crime. The district judge would then determine the integrity of the evidence and conclude if the requesting agency has probable cause to request the wiretap.
The bill is titled the Billy Clardy Act. The namesake is derived from a Huntsville law enforcement officer who was killed in an undercover drug bust in December of 2019. Clardy was killed while attempting to arrest a man who was there to sell Clardy, and others, over 100 pounds of marijuana. Reynolds said he believes the proposed wiretapping technology would prevent another death like Clardy's in the future.
"I've talked to the Sheriff's Association, the District Attorney's office, and the State Bureau of Investigation, and they all support this," Reynolds said.
The wiretapping would require the use of specialized machines that are manufactured specifically to intercept communications. According to Reynolds, the devices would be specifically under the care and supervision of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA,) and any agency that desires to use the machines would require the permission of ALEA.
The bill would specifically apply to drug trafficking, but any extraneous evidence acquired through a wiretap would be admissible in court.
For the most common drugs, the minimum amount to be considered trafficking must be equal to or more than 2.2 pounds of cannabis, 28 grams of amphetamines or cocaine, four grams of heroin, and one gram of fentanyl.
Reynolds said he has included more than enough qualifying procedures in the bill to assuage any citizens' concerns.
"We have put in a lot of safeguards to ensure that we aren't violating people's freedoms," Reynolds said. "The legislation would operate through a very narrow scope, and we even have included punishments for officers who misuse the machines… like fines, and I think there's something about civil action too."
The bill's text does make provision for suppressing improperly intercepted communications in a court of law, as well as civil actions against agencies or officers who use the technology improperly.
The Alabama Legislature convenes for its next regular session on Jan. 11, 2022.