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Police snooping of phone call leads to drug arrest

A phone conversation that was "overheard" by a suburban Pittsburgh police officer led to the arrest of a 48-year-old woman on suspicion of drug distribution. With such serious charges against the woman and her son, who made the phone call, one question that may be raised at trial is whether the officer was legally entitled to listen in on the conversation.

The phone call in question was made on Nov. 1, after the son, 24, was arrested. It appears the arrest was for alleged drug offenses. While in custody, he made a call on a cellphone. He told the person on the other end of the line that he had tickets to the upcoming Pittsburgh Steelers game. He asked the person to retrieve the tickets and give them to someone else.

As Greensburg officer said he "overheard" the conversation and recalled that the Steelers were on the road that week. He decided this was an example of a suspect using code to refer to drugs and inferred that the suspect had called his mother. He had another officer go to the mother's house for surveillance. The second officer pulled over the mother as she left the house, confirmed that her cellphone was the one that received the suspect's call, and waited for her to return from her errand.

At that time, police searched her home and car. They said they found a package in the car that contained crack cocaine and heroin. They arrested the mother on charges of drug possession, possession with intent to deliver and conspiracy.

A defense attorney representing either suspect in this case may question whether the officer listening to the son's phone call was a form of an unwarranted eavesdropping. That could mean that all evidence collected as a result would be thrown out of court as illegally obtained. If the issue arises, prosecutors could argue that people in police custody do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their phone calls.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Greensburg police: 'Steeler tickets' meant $1K street drugs," Bob Stiles, Dec. 21, 2012

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