Sandusky County case: Court settles warrant issue for cell phone taps

Larry Limpf

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled law enforcement officers can get warrants to intercept a cell phone call from both where the phone is in use and from where officers are listening.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled state law allows officers to obtain a warrant seeking to intercept calls from a judge in the county in which the interception occurs after a Sandusky County man challenged the legality of a warrant issued by the county’s common pleas court.
Keith Nettles, who was convicted of drug trafficking, argued that a Sandusky County judge improperly issued a warrant to intercept his phone calls and that officers should have obtained the warrant from a judge in Lucas County where agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency would be listening to his calls.
But the Supreme Court upheld an earlier decision by the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals that concluded the interception occurred at the place where the phone was used as well as where officers are listening.
“Largely gone are the days when law enforcement agents could install a physical wiretap on a phone line. So, to allow for surveillance of cell phone communications, federal law requires that tele-communications carriers maintain technology that isolates, and enables the government to intercept, targeted communications pursuant to lawful authorization,” Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote for the Supreme Court. “Upon receiving the warrant, Verizon captured the contents of Nettles’ incoming and outgoing calls while he was speaking and then funneled – redirected - the calls to the federal agents. When Verizon captures and redirects a call in this manner, it is not doing so at a precise point in space but rather across the entire network to which the government has gained access. The moment a speaker speaks into a phone connected to the network, the interception – capture and redirection – takes place.”
Ohio’s statutes define “intercept” as the “aural or other acquisition of the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication through the use of an interception device,” DeWine wrote. But the “upshot is that an interception of a cell phone first occurs when the government captures and redirects the contents of the call at the place where a speaker uses the phone; an interception also occurs when the government overhears the call at the listening post.”
Federal and other state courts have reached the same conclusion applying similar laws, DeWine wrote.
Based in part on information obtained as a result of the warrant, Nettles was arrested and charged with multiple counts of drug trafficking. Prior to his trial, he filed a motion to suppress evidence derived from the warrant. The Sandusky County Common Pleas Court denied the motion and he was convicted in a jury trial and sentenced to prison.
He had argued the statute wording only gave the DEA the authority to apply for a warrant in Lucas County. The statute says an appropriate official “may authorize an application for an interception warrant to a judge of the court of common pleas of the county in which the interception is to take place or in which the interception device is to be installed.”
Nettles contended that because the DEA listened to his calls in Toledo, the “interception” also took place there.


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