On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court held that Superior Court judges cannot issue warrants to permit law enforcement to set up wiretaps outside their judicial circuits.
This opinion reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals decision that upheld the State’s use of wiretapping in a multi-county drug investigation case.
In 2007, the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office gathered information from both informants and surveillance efforts and applied for warrants to place wiretaps on the phones of several suspects in an alleged ecstasy distribution ring. A Gwinnett County Superior Court judge granted the warrants, and officers with the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force tapped over 18 phone lines while listening to the intercepted conversations from a “wire room” in their Fulton County headquarters. Police eventually seized approximately 65,000 ecstasy tablets, seven weapons, and thousands of dollars in cash. More than three dozen people were indicted on drug charges.
Before trial, lawyers for three of the defendants filed motions to suppress the intercepted communications, claiming that the Gwinnett County Superior Court judge did not have the authority to grant the warrant for telephone interceptions that were being conducted in Fulton County. The trial court judge denied the motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that amendments to the Georgia wiretap statute provide that judges in the jurisdiction where the crime is prosecuted may approve such warrants. The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the ruling, stating that current law indicates that Superior Court judges have a limited territorial reach.
As a result of the reversal by the Supreme Court, the State’s wiretap evidence will be suppressed. According to the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office, this development may result in the dismissal of the affected defendants from the case. More importantly, State prosecutors will now have a much tougher time compiling evidence in large-scale drug distribution cases as wiretaps are a popular law enforcement tool in these investigations. Prosecutors may lobby the State legislature to amend the current Georgia law to avoid future limitations on wiretaps.
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