Highest Court in Maryland Reviews Motion to Suppress in Criminal Wiretapping Case

In criminal cases, law enforcement personnel employ a variety of different methods to gather evidence against an alleged “suspect.” One such strategy includes the use of wiretapping and electronic surveillance in an effort to intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications. Both federal and state laws govern the use of wiretapping surveillance in criminal cases. Under Maryland’s wiretapping law, citizens are afforded a greater degree of privacy than under the federal wiretap law. If evidence in your criminal case was obtained via a wiretap or other electronic surveillance, it is vitally important that the intercepted communication was obtained within the confines of the law. For help with this aspect of your case, as well as any other legal issue, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after an arrest.

In a recent Maryland Court of Appeals case, the petitioner challenged the State’s method of obtaining evidence from a recorded phone call (monitored by the alleged victim), with equipment provided by a detective with the Montgomery County Police. Here, the victim alleged that he had been sexually abused by his step-uncle (petitioner) during the summer of 1982. Thirty years after the alleged sexual abuse took place in Maryland, the victim (who now lives in West Virginia) sought help from staff at a police station in Rockville. After describing the abuse to a detective, the two made several calls to the alleged perpetrator in an attempt to elicit an admission or confession.

While these calls were unsuccessful, the detective gave the victim the digital recording equipment and made sure he knew how to operate the device. The victim brought the equipment back home with him to West Virginia, where he used the device to record a telephone call with petitioner during which he made several incriminating statements. The detective later met with the victim and retrieved the recording. At trial, the telephone conversation was played for the jury over defense counsel’s objection. The jury found petitioner guilty on all counts, including one count of child sexual abuse and other related sex offenses.

Petitioner appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained from an alleged illegal wiretap. In a split decision, that court upheld the conviction, concluding that the detective “sufficiently supervised” the victim’s efforts to record the telephone conversation, rendering the recording a “permissible interception” under the Statute. Petitioner appealed, arguing that the victim was not acting under the supervision of a law enforcement officer, as required by the Maryland wiretap law.

The Court of Appeals thoroughly reviewed the plain language of the statute, applicable and cited case law, the statutory purpose, and legislative history. The statute makes clear that an unlawful intercept of communication is inadmissible in any court proceeding. As with most laws, there are exceptions, such as if a person is acting under the supervision of an investigative or law enforcement officer. But the Court concluded that the detective failed to supervise the use of the recording equipment by failing to set rules or guidelines, and by not making any effort to contact the victim once he left the police station. The Court pointed out that there must be some “oversight,” and there was none in this case.

Since the Maryland Wiretap Act sets forth a strict procedure to be followed, the Court concluded that the trial court erred in admitting the taped telephone call between petitioner and the victim. This case nicely illustrates the importance of understanding any and all applicable defenses leading up to a criminal arrest and prosecution. Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience handling criminal defense cases in Maryland.  Our office can work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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