State Wiretaps and Electronic Surveillance after September 11

20 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2003

See all articles by Charles H. Kennedy

Charles H. Kennedy

Morrison & Foerster, LLP

Peter Swire

Georgia Institute of Technology - Scheller College of Business; Georgia Tech School of Cybersecurity and Privacy; Cross-Border Data Forum


This article examines the changing landscape for wiretaps and other electronic surveillance at the state level in the wake of the events of September 11. Based on available statistics, over two-thirds of law enforcement wiretaps in the United States in 2001 were authorized by state rather than federal judges, and there is evidence of significant under-reporting of state wiretaps.

Part I of the Article explains the constitutional and statutory framework for government interception of: the content of a communication ("wiretaps"); to/from information (such as phone numbers or e-mail addresses); and stored communications records. Appendix A to the Article provides a survey and analysis of the interception, to/from, and stored records laws for all 50 states. Appendix B provides a survey of proposed and enacted changes to state laws in the initial period from September 11, 2001 to June 1, 2002. This research was performed on behalf of the Liberty and Security Initiative of the Constitution Project.

Part II analyzes the proposed and enacted changes following September 11. Legislation principally addressed these issues: expanding the list of offenses eligible for interception orders; expanding the list of officials with wiretap authority; expanding the categories of persons who may execute wiretaps; authorizing roving and statewide surveillance; and expanding the types of communications and devices subject to interception.

The conclusions in Part III highlight the weaker internal and external controls that apply to wiretaps and other electronic surveillance at the state level. At a formal/legal level, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) does provide that state wiretap laws may have effect only if they meet federal minimum standards for nature of the offense, minimization, and other features. Based on our review of state laws, however, we consider it likely that state wiretaps are systematically less subject to training requirements and other institutional controls on prosecutorial and police discretion. External controls are also likely more substantial at the federal level. Academics, the press, advocacy groups, and Congressional oversight have all provided important checks on any temptation by federal officials to overstep the limits of their surveillance powers. These oversight efforts are less developed in most states, and our research on state laws is intended in part to facilitate better understanding of how these laws in fact operate.

A separate implication of this research concerns the interplay of federal and state surveillance law. Passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act in 2001 focused essentially exclusively on the scope of surveillance powers appropriate for federal officials. The preemption provision in ECPA, however, means that a change in federal law also permits an equivalent change in state law. Many of the bills recently proposed mirror the reduction of privacy rights in the USA-PATRIOT Act. In considering changes to federal surveillance law, the relatively weak internal and external oversight of state wiretaps is thus relevant. Even where sufficient controls can be created to justify actions by federal officials, the additional issue is whether appropriate safeguards will be created at the state level, where the large majority of wiretaps actually occur.

Keywords: wiretaps, surveillance, criminal procedure

Suggested Citation

Kennedy, Charles H. and Swire, Peter, State Wiretaps and Electronic Surveillance after September 11. Available at SSRN: or

Charles H. Kennedy

Morrison & Foerster, LLP ( email )

2000 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20006
United States

Peter Swire (Contact Author)

Georgia Institute of Technology - Scheller College of Business ( email )

800 West Peachtree St.
Atlanta, GA 30308
United States
(404) 894-2000 (Phone)

Georgia Tech School of Cybersecurity and Privacy ( email )

Atlanta, GA 30332
United States

Cross-Border Data Forum

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