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PA Supreme Court allows warrantless undercover text messages

A Pennsylvania State Police trooper did not violate state law when he posed as someone else and exchanged text messages with a drug crimes suspect even though he did so without a warrant, the state Supreme Court recently ruled. The ruling, which is similar to amendments scheduled to go into effect to the state's Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, means that law enforcement may not have to obtain a warrant before receiving electronic communications from people while posing as a civilian.

The underlying cases involved a 2007 arrest of two men by a State Police officer. The officer pulled over the men's vehicle and eventually arrested them on suspicion of marijuana possession and possession of a handgun. Under interrogation, one of the men allegedly told the officer that he had been hired by another man to deliver the marijuana to a buyer in Pennsylvania. The man had provided the defendant with a cellphone so they could communicate by text message.

Without obtaining a court order first, the officer took the cellphone and began sending texts to the third man, who later became the first defendant in the Supreme Court case. Pretending to be the arrested man, he lured the defendant to a hotel, where he and a second man were arrested.

At trial, the defendants argued that the text messages were illegal because the officer did not obtain a warrant. The trial court agreed and the appellate court upheld that ruling. But the Supreme Court overturned that decision. The ruling said that a prior case, which ruled that officers posing as underage teenagers in Internet chat rooms do not violate the wiretap law, applies to this case.

Even if the officer directly lies to a suspect about his or her identity, the officer is still "a direct party to the conversation" so he or she is "deemed to intended recipient of the conversation." Therefore, the deception is not a form of warrantless government surveillance, the court concluded.

This ruling appears to expand law enforcement's power to read people's text messages without their knowledge or a search warrant. However, in cases of criminal charges related to an undercover text conversation, police still might make procedural abuses that could invalidate evidence gathered as a result.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Pa. justices: Fake texts don't violate Wiretap Act," Gina Passarella, Dec. 24, 2012

ยท Our law firm provides criminal defense for people accused of a drug crime in Pittsburgh. For more information, please visit our Pittsburgh drug charges page.

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