The Georgia Supreme Court issued a powerful 4th Amendment decision on Jan. 7: the Court unanimously reversed the Court of Appeals regarding the reach of a judges’ power to issue wiretap warrants.
Wiretap warrants are an essential tool for law enforcement in the investigation of organized crime. They are particularly important when a criminal organization is widespread covering numerous counties, states and even countries.
In the consolidated cases of Luangkhot v. State, Phommachanh v. State, and Saleumsy v. State, the Court ruled in favor of a group of defendants, holding that superior court judges could issue wiretap warrants only if the law enforcement listening posts or tapped phones were located in their circuit.
The criminal cases resulted from a multidistrict state and federal investigation led by the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, which based its wiretap operations in Fulton County. Gwinnett County prosecutors obtained a series of investigative warrants from the Gwinnett Superior Court authorizing the interception of telephone conversations from 18 different telephone lines. None of the telephones were ever used in Gwinnett County.
The argument put forth by the defendants was that a Gwinnett County judge did not have the authority to issue wiretap warrants in Fulton County. Gwinnett and Fulton are two separate judicial districts.
The Court explained that, “under the auspices of combatting terrorism, the state Legislature in 2002 incorporated federal procedures for the terms and procedures under which wiretap warrants may be granted.” The federal statute says a wiretap order may “authorize or approve interception of wire, oral or electronic communications within the territorial jurisdiction of the court in which the judge is sitting.”
Justice Hunstein, who wrote the majority opinion, went on to say “the site of the interception was the listening post from which the calls were overheard.” The federal definition has been expanded to include also the location of the tapped phone. It seems from the opinion that all of this activity took place in Fulton County.
Most importantly, the Court wrote that the “territorial jurisdiction” of a superior court judge’s authority is defined by Georgia law to encompass only the judge’s judicial circuit. In Georgia, we have numerous judicial districts.
The bottom line is that the Court ruled that the Gwinnett County Superior Court judges should not have issued wiretap warrants for cases in which law enforcement’s listening post was located in Fulton County.
I believe that this decision will temporarily handicap law enforcement’s efforts to investigate and prosecute organized illegal drug operations in Georgia. For now, law enforcement officers will have to go from district to district to obtain wiretap warrants in cases involving widespread organized criminal activity. However, I also expect the General Assembly to address this issue in the very near future. A new law could possibly give judges the authority to issue multidistrict wiretaps. That new law will need to be crafted very carefully with this case in mind. Undoubtedly, a new wiretap law will be challenged in the appellate courts as well.
Swindle is a local attorney at law.