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Judges Authorize More Wiretaps

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of wiretaps authorized by federal and state judges rose by 2 percent last year, with more than 70 percent of them approved to investigate possible drug crimes, the government reports.

Federal courts authorized 601 wiretaps in 1999, up by 6 percent from 566 authorized a year earlier, according to figures released this week by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.

State judges allowed 749 wiretaps last year, down by 2 percent from the 763 authorized a year earlier. The 1998 number had been a 24 percent increase from the previous year.

Last year's numbers add up to 1,350 wiretaps authorized by federal and state judges, up from 1,329 in 1998. A decade earlier, in 1989, there were 763 wiretaps authorized nationwide.

Seventy-two percent of all wiretaps were aimed at catching drug criminals. Also investigated with wiretaps were alleged crimes of racketeering, homicide and gambling.

The report said 676 orders were for electronic wiretaps — such as buggings of cellular phones and electronic pagers — compared with 399 for stationary phones. In 1998, there were 576 electronic taps and 494 for stationary phones.

Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocates' group, said, ``The fact that the greatest rate of increase is in the newer technologies undercuts the argument that we normally hear from the government about how hard it is for them to do their job in the face of new technology.''

The report said judges authorized all wiretaps that were requested. ``That says to me the legal standards are not strict enough,'' Dempsey said, while ``more and more information is out there to be intercepted.''

The federal government, the District of Columbia and 42 states allow courts to order wiretap surveillance.

New York had by far the most wiretaps authorized, with 343. Next was California with 76, New Jersey with 71, Pennsylvania with 69 and Illinois with 50. Those states made up 81 percent of all authorizations by state judges.
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