HONOLULU (KHON2) - Wiretapping and other law-enforcement surveillance of communications is ramping up in Hawaii. Who is being tracked, and at what cost? Always Investigating found the feds are listening in more than ever for their Hawaii investigations. But the use of wiretapping to build a case also is a go-to-tactic for Maui County.
Something big is going down on the Valley Isle. Maui police and the prosecutor will only say that cases currently under investigation are behind a notable 9 trace applications last year. Always Investigating found this on an annual state attorney general report that most often has zero to a couple at most. "Trap and trace" and "pen register" are tools that track what phone numbers are coming in and out from any line.
We asked, what would that tell an investigator?
"Who the person is in contact with, so the investigator has that information,” explained Kevin Takata, state Supervising Deputy Attorney General of the Criminal Justice Division.
Do these usually accompany a parallel application for wiretap?
“They may precede -- or often precede -- a wiretap application," Takata said.
As for wiretaps --- actual listening-in on phone conversations or snagging text messages -- Maui County regularly stays busy. Over the past few years, Maui is the only county level jurisdiction getting wiretap orders, according to annual reports filed with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Maui County authorities have listened in on more than 126 people according to a three-year tally, nearly 800 calls that netted 66 of what they call "incriminating intercepts.”
But wiretaps are rising in cost every year for Maui, from $121,025 per order in 2015 to $176,000 at last count.
On the federal side, tracking right along with the timeline of the Kealoha and police officer corruption scandal, Hawaii cases really ramped up over the past couple of years. The feds listened in on hundreds of people to gather more than 13,500 intercepted communications.
Nearly 1,200 of those intercepts were considered incriminating. The feds' cost per-order was a lot less each than Maui's -- around $40,000 a pop.
All told, only a relative handful of surveillance orders – 30 by the feds in a three-year sample, 13 by Maui County over the same period -- snowballed into intercepts on hundreds of other people who were in touch with the targets, according to our review of Maui and federal records.
This concerns civil liberties advocates.
“Wiretaps can be a legitimate law enforcement tool when they're properly executed,” said Joshua Wisch, ACLU executive director. “Like any tool, wiretaps can be exploited to harm the innocent. When that happens, they can become fishing expeditions into a person's life and the lives of those with whom they communicate."
Those on the prosecution side say they take seriously their responsibilities to balance individual rights.
"Law enforcement has to constantly monitor what it is listening to,” Takata said, “to make sure that this very intrusive investigative tool is not being abused."
Always Investigating asked, who is making sure of that on the unknowing-suspect's behalf?
“The investigators in conjunction with the prosecutor assigned to that investigation,” Takata said.
Always Investigating asked, since one could say a prosecutor is gunning for the suspect, is there any other layer of protection for a suspect?
"A judge will review what is going on also, so there are many layers of review to make sure that there's no abuse,” Takata said, “because law enforcement and the courts recognize that this is invading the privacy of America's citizens, so we want to make sure that that invasion is only as to the crimes being investigated."
We asked, what if it's evidence of a new and different crime overheard?
“Then you have to go back and get approval to listen to that new and different crime," Takata said. “That's a good question. but law enforcement has to constantly monitor what it is listening to, to make sure that this very intrusive investigative tool is not being abused.”
One reason Maui wiretaps so much is they had been the only county with its own listening room for decades. Kauai just recently set one up.
As for Honolulu, the police department spokesperson said: "HPD uses wire taps as part of joint federal investigations. These requests would be included in the federal stats. There are no plans for a listening facility on Oahu."
The Honolulu prosecutor’s spokesperson told us: "Requests for wiretaps come from police and they haven't asked for any. It is our understanding they work with federal law enforcement authorities on these kinds of matters."
We'll continue to follow up with Maui police and prosecutors to find out what those pending trace cases are all about, once any charges are filed.