New Jersey Supreme Court Says ‘Roving Wiretap’ Is OK

The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed with a Camden drug organization leader Wednesday who challenged evidence obtained from a “roving wiretap” used to keep tabs on suspects using “burner” throw-away phones.

The court upheld an Appellate Division decision and rulings unanimously which were passed by a Superior Court judge. The rulings allowed a joint Camden-Philadelphia drug task force along with authorities in the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office to use the same warrant to target multiple phone numbers used by suspects to conceal drug activity.

The ACLU as well as lawyers associated with the case called it an important decision. A ruling passed by the Supreme Court included additional judicial oversight in a state that has used roving wiretaps 28 times between the period 2010 to 2014. According to an attorney, this is more than any other state.

ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom said that was astonishing. He stated that only four other states used seven roving warrants in the same time period, one each in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina and four in New York.

Although the use of roving warrants was preserved by the Supreme Court, it also required law enforcement agencies to go to a judge to show that the wiretapping numbers not on the original warrant were appropriate.

Deputy Attorney General Steven Yomtov, who handled the appeal for the state, said that it is an important decision. It recognizes that roving wiretaps are a critical tool for law enforcement.

“Suspects, especially ones involved in large criminal enterprises like the drug ring in this case, will often change phone facilities to thwart police detection, given the ease with which cellphones can be purchased and discarded,” said Yomtov.

46-year-old Hector Feliciano was investigated in 2007 when law enforcement applied for 10 wiretaps. Eight of the wiretaps were roving. These wiretaps captured numerous conversations about drug activity with suspects using various phone numbers, including Feliciano.

According to court records, Feliciano was heard making arrangements to pick up heroin in New York City in April 2008. He also instructed an associate to rent a car and bring her baby to make it look like a family trip.

Feliciano was among 11 people indicted by a grand jury. He was identified as the leader of the drug ring and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2012. He entered a plea agreement where he admitted that he controlled the organization. After the plea agreement, additional charges related to the distribution of drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana were dismissed.

Before the plea agreement, Feliciano requested to suppress information obtained from the wiretap. However that request was denied, so he entered a plea. According to Feliciano, law enforcement used overly broad information to tap his phones, including those which were not on the original warrant.

He appealed the conviction claiming that the Camden judge erred in not suppressing the wiretap information. He also said that the authorities failed to provide sufficient evidence to the grand jury that he was the organization’s leader. Although Feliciano’s argument was rejected by the Appellate Division, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

“When a target purposely changes facilities to avoid detection, law enforcement officers may switch over and begin to monitor a new facility under the state’s wiretap law, provided they have otherwise fully complied with the statute,” stated the Supreme Court.

Some of the ACLU’s concerns were addressed by the court. An opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner stated, “Going forward law enforcement must notify a wiretap judge within 48 hours of the switch and obtain authorization to continue monitoring the new facility.”

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Matthew V. Portella

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