A bill allowing wiretapping in certain drug crimes is heading to the Governor’s desk. 

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 seeks to provide state law enforcement with the capabilities to intercept communications via phone, internet and related wire communications. 

House Bill 17 (HB17), sponsored by Rep. Rex Reynolds, allows 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 confirm the evidence and conclude if the requesting agency has probable cause to request the wiretap.

On March 16, the Senate approved HB17 with amendments and sent it back to the House for concurrence. The House concurred on the Senate amendments, and the bill will now go to Gov. Kay Ivey for her consideration.    

The bill does not apply exclusively to phone communications. It applies to any electronic information, including internet, photo and radio communications. 

HB17 is also called the Billy Clardy Act. The namesake is derived from a Huntsville law enforcement officer who was killed in an undercover drug bust in Dec. 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 will prevent another death like Clardy's in the future. 

State Sen. Tom Butler (R – Madison) previously introduced an identical bill that was unable to pass the Senate. On Feb. 21, Butler’s bill reached a tie vote in the Senate which was insufficient to pass it through that body.  

According to Butler, the bill would only apply to large drug trafficking operations. Butler repeatedly stated that only a “kingpin” drug trafficker would be eligible for potential wiretapping. 

Although the bill does not use the term "kingpin," it does require that stringent protocols be followed before wiretapping would be able to proceed. 

The Senate amendments were not debated or disagreed upon by Reynolds, and he accepted them as friendly to his bill. One amendment limited the authority of utilizing the wiretapping machines to state law enforcement, not federal. Another amendment requires the AG to present an annual report of wiretaps to the legislature. The final amendment put a time restriction on the bill if it is signed into law, meaning the bill’s provisions would expire in 2026 unless extended by the legislature. 

The wiretapping would require the use of specialized machines that are manufactured specifically to intercept communications. According to Reynolds, the devices would remain 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. 

"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." 

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