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Is the Federal Government Tapping Your Phone?

October 11, 2021

By the time federal agents come to your home while investigating you, they likely already know a lot about you and the case they are investigating. This can be shocking, leaving you to question whether the federal government has been tapping your phone or if it will begin to do so. The federal government can seek a court order to allow it to wiretap phones, but there are some restrictions. A wiretap is serious. If you believe you are under investigation by the federal government, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney who practices in both state and federal court. A lawyer can help you to figure out the best strategic approach to take to try to avoid a potential conviction. By getting help before you are charged, your attorney might be able to negotiate with the federal prosecutor to try to secure an agreement not to charge you criminally.

How federal wiretaps work

Before federal agents can tap your phone, they must first go through a stringent process to get approval from a judge. Agents are also not allowed to perform wiretaps for all crimes but are instead only allowed to do so for specific offenses listed in 18 U.S.C. § 2516.

If you are being investigated for a qualifying crime, the Department of Justice must file a request for a wiretap order with a judge in federal court. However, a federal prosecutor who wants to tap your phone will likely first need to get internal approval to request it from the DOJ.

Federal agents cannot simply start tapping your phone without first obtaining court approval. In its request, the Department of Justice must include a description of who will be subject to the wiretap and its details under 18 U.S.C. § 2518. The prosecutor will also have to include information about whether they have tried using other investigative procedures that failed or if other methods would be too dangerous or likely unsuccessful. Before the judge can order the wiretap, he or she must first find that other investigative methods to secure the information would be too dangerous.

Once the order is issued, the wiretap cannot last more than 30 days. If the prosecutor still needs to wiretap a phone, he or she will have to submit another request to the judge and explain what was found. The court can order the prosecutor to submit reports about the wiretap and any information that has been found.

The process involved with getting a wiretap authorized requires a significant amount of work. As a result, wiretaps are not done as routine matters in federal investigations. However, depending on what you are being investigated for, a federal prosecutor might seek authorization from the court to tap your phone. If it is a mobile phone, a wiretap order would also allow federal agents to see your incoming and outgoing text messages.

What types of federal crimes allow wiretapping?

Federal agents are restricted in their ability to tap phones and cannot just listen to people’s phone calls to search for possible crimes to prosecute. However, if you think that you might be under federal surveillance for something you have done or because you have associated with someone who might be involved in serious criminal activities, it is possible that your phone might be tapped.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 2516, federal agents can seek wiretaps when they are investigating people for the following offenses:

  • Possessing, exporting, manufacturing, or threatening to use atomic weapons
  • Communicating restricted information to a foreign government to harm the U.S.
  • Other violations of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954
  • Sabotaging a nuclear facility
  • Acts of terrorism
  • Espionage
  • Kidnapping
  • Treason
  • Piracy
  • Trade secrets violations
  • Murder
  • Extortion
  • Robbery
  • Arson within maritime or territorial jurisdiction
  • Drug trafficking
  • Counterfeiting
  • Aircraft parts fraud
  • Misusing passports
  • Other qualifying offenses

This is not an exhaustive list. There are numerous other offenses that are included in § 2516. If you think that you might be under surveillance, an attorney can help you determine the options you might have.

Securing approval for a wiretap involves a complicated process, and wiretaps are not as common as many people imagine. Getting approval from the DOJ and the court can take numerous hours of time drafting requests that explain why wiretapping your phone is necessary. However, depending on what you are being investigated for, federal prosecutors might still decide that it is worthwhile to request authorization for a wiretap.

Talk to an experienced federal criminal defense attorney

If you believe federal agents are investigating you for a crime, you should get help from a criminal defense lawyer as early as possible. Getting legal help early might increase the chances of a better outcome in your case. The defense attorney you choose should be experienced in handling serious federal criminal cases. Contact us today to schedule an appointment to learn more about how we might be able to help you.

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