The Wire, David Simon's epic examination of power, corruption and narcotics in a major American city, was not set in Texas. It couldn't have been. Not because cities here don't have those things (they do) but because local police departments aren't allowed to go around wiretapping drug dealers.
Under current law, that responsibility falls to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Whenever a judge approves a wiretap, prosecutors have to go through DPS to set it up. But this rarely happens. State district judges (the feds have their own system) ordered only two wiretaps in 2011. The previous year the number was one. The year before that, zero.
Nevertheless, twin measures would let Harris County and the state's six largest police departments perform their own wiretaps are sailing through the Legislature. The Senate approved its bill last month, and the issue got a favorable hearing this week in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
The author of the Senate bill, Houston Republican Joan Huffman, argues that DPS lacks the manpower to handle wiretapping requests from local agencies and that the bill "would lead to more efficient criminal investigations." But Scott Henson, a criminal justice watchdog in Austin who pens the blog Grits for Breakfast, doubts that. He's been following the issue closely with growing alarm.
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Henson summarizes his complaints in written testimony he gave in opposition to the bills, but the main point is that the legislation solves a problem that doesn't exist.
"Ask and ye shall receive, the Good Book tells us, seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you," he writes. "But if you never knock? ..."
And as we mentioned above, local police departments aren't knocking very often. Court records show that state judges have approved just 29 wiretaps over 15 years, which means DPS isn't exactly inundated with requests. Jimmy Taylor, a Houston detective who testified in favor of the bill, said his department typically doesn't ask for wiretaps because it knows DPS is too busy, according to Henson's recap. "If we didn't have to go through DPS we'd do more of them."
But isn't that really an argument against the bill? If police thought a wiretap was key to their case, they'd try and go get one. That they typically don't suggests the system's fine as it is.