The following article was written by the late Eric M. Noonan, Assistant Executive Deputy Attorney General. Eric joined the office of Attorney General in 1988 and over the next eleven years became a recognized expert in wiretap law. He also gained a reputation for honesty, integrity and diligence throughout the law enforcement community in Pennsylvania. His intelligence and wit made him a beloved and trusted supervisor.
Eric M. Noonan
February 19, 1958 - April 24, 1999
WIRETAPPING & ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE IN PENNSYLVANIA
By: Eric M. Noonan
Assistant Executive Deputy Attorney General
Organized Crime & Narcotics
The general rule in Pennsylvania is that electronic surveillance is illegal. For the purposes of this article, "electronic surveillance" shall include the interception (to include recording) of electronic (digital pagers, computers/e-mail, fax machines), oral (face-to-face conversations where there is an expectation of privacy/non-interruption) and wire (telephone conversations) communications. This general rule, and certain limited exceptions thereto, appear in Pennsylvania?s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, 18 Pa. C.S. § 5701, et seq.
Some 41 other states nationwide have their own wiretapping/electronic surveillance statutes. These statutes follow either a "one party consent" or "two/all party consent" rule. The former creates an exception to the foregoing general prohibition if one of the parties to the intercepted communication is aware of, and has consented to the interception. The latter reflects a more restrictive rule -- that being that both, or all parties to the intercepted communication must be aware of and have consented to its interception. Pennsylvania falls into the latter, more restrictive category.
In addition to the various state statutes, the federal government has its own wiretapping/electronic surveillance statute at 18 U.S.C. § 2510 et seq. The federal statute is of the less-restrictive "one party consent" variety. This federal law is what authorizes the various states to enact their own statutes. Generally speaking, in order for state statutes to be deemed lawful, they must comport with the constraints of the federal statute. The state statutes can be even more restrictive than the federal statutes, however, they cannot be less restrictive. In addition, there must be compliance with the constraints of the United States Constitution and the respective state constitutions.
There are certain limited exceptions to the general prohibition against electronic surveillance. The exceptions exist for so-called "providers of wire or electronic communication service" (e.g., telephone companies and the like) and law enforcement in the furtherance of criminal investigative activities. With the limited exception of telemarketers, there is no sweeping exception for the private sector absent all parties? awareness and consent to the interception of the communication.
As to the providers? exception -- this generally relates to ensuring the proper operation of their facilities and protection of themselves and their customers from fraudulent or illegal use of their facilities. As to the law enforcement exception -- interceptions can only be undertaken in the furtherance of a criminal investigation. Further, the police do not have an unfettered ability to do interceptions. Their authority is tempered in situations where one of the parties has consented to law enforcement?s eavesdropping by the fact that they must get the prior approval of a designated prosecutor. Further, in the event the conversation is expected to take place in a home, a probable cause-based court order is required in addition to the attorney?s approval. In the event the interception proposed by law enforcement is without any of the participants? knowledge or consent, then a court must issue an order based not only on a finding of probable cause, but also a judicial finding that the technique is necessary -- that more traditional/less intrusive investigative techniques would fail or would be fruitless to continue, or would be too dangerous to try. As to the telemarketers? exception -- interception can only be undertaken for training, quality control or business monitoring purposes.
The majority of the Act is devoted to the law enforcement exception. In that regard, the Act provides law enforcement with five investigative techniques: 1) consensual interception of electronic, oral or wire communications (where one of the parties to the communication is aware of, and has consented to law enforcement?s electronic eavesdropping); 2) records/information access (i.e. toll records/long distance billing information subscriber information, etc.); 3) mobile tracking devices (electronic tracking of the movement of a vehicle, parcel, etc.); 4) pen register/trap & trace device and telecommunication identification interception device (devices that provide law enforcement with the outgoing numbers dialed from a targeted telephone facility, source of incoming calls to a targeted telephone facility and the electronic serial number/mobile identification number assigned to a cellular telephone facility, respectively); and 5) nonconsensual interception of electronic, oral or wire communications (where none of participants in the communication are aware of or have consented to law enforcement?s electronic eavesdropping).
As to 1), consensuals -- the technique must receive the prior approval of the District Attorney, Attorney General or an Assistant DA/Deputy AG before being undertaken. Further, if the technique is to occur in the "home" of anyone other than the consenting party, then a probable cause-based court order is also required. As to 2), records/information access -- either a subpoena, search warrant, court order or the consent of the customer/subscriber to the facility in question must be obtained before law enforcement can access the material. As to 3), mobile tracking -- a court order is required before the technique may be undertaken. As to 4), pen register, etc. -- a probable cause-based court order is required. As to 5) nonconsensuals -- a probable cause-based court order is required finding not only that certain crimes have been, will be or are being committed, but also that there is a need for law enforcement?s use of this technique.
Disclosure/use of contents of communications obtained hereby is authorized only in extremely limited circumstances. For criminal investigative purposes, an investigative or law enforcement officer who, pursuant to the proper performance of his/her duties has acquired knowledge of the contents of a communication, may disclose such contents to another investigative or law enforcement officer so long as such disclosure is appropriate to the proper performance of the duties of both the disclosing and receiving officer. Likewise, such investigative or law enforcement officer may use such information (which may implicitly include further disclosure) as appropriate to the proper performance of that officer?s duties (such as disclosure to a judge in an affidavit for a search or arrest warrant).