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WACTHBLOG: Court rules police can legally impersonate via text

By   /   December 18, 2012  /   3 Comments

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

CALL ME, MAYBE: Law enforcement in Pennsylvania can legally impersonate someone while communicating via phone with a suspect, according to a December 2012 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision.

HARRISBURG — Police officers in Pennsylvania can legally text message a suspect while pretending to be their accomplice, according to a state Supreme Court decision handed down Monday.

At issue was whether such a tactic violated the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act (also known as the Wiretap Act). But pending updates to this law will further change how law enforcement can use technology in their investigations.

The court ruled that police impersonation via phone does not violate the Wiretap Act since no eavesdropping, listening in, or interception takes place.

“An officer is deemed the ‘intended recipient’ of a phone communication in which the officer is directly involved, even under circumstances in which the officer shields or misrepresents his or her identity, because the caller elects to talk to the officer who answered the phone,” reads the court’s majority opinion from Justice Seamus McCaffery.

But this standard will soon be subject to a more thorough review process. Under a recent update to the Wiretap Act,  a police officer using a phone to impersonate someone else will require permission from a district attorney or an attorney general before gathering this information. 

The court decision comes down as, nationwide, courts set precedents for how law enforcement are allowed to use 21st century technology without violating privacy laws.

The Pennsylvania case started with a 2007 traffic stop along I-80 in Clearfield County. State police had pulled over a car with Arizona plates. Inside, they found, 35 pounds of marijuana, methamphetamines, drug paraphernalia, a .45 caliber handgun, and a cell phone.

Police gained the permission of one of the vehicle’s occupants to use the phone to contact a suspected accomplice involved in the sale of the marijuana. An investigator, pretending to be the phone’s owner, set up an in-person meeting with the suspect where he and a co-defendant were arrested.

Justices cited a case from 2001 as existing precedent. That case held that an officer pretending to be an underage girl in a chat room while communicating with a suspected predator did not violate the Wiretap Act, because the officer was a direct party in the communication.

Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]


Melissa formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.