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Information Not So Public in California

Each year in California, the Attorney General’s office compiles a detailed report on all state-level wiretap orders filed by local prosecutors. This mandate was passed by the legislature in order to provide transparency in what is typically a highly covert operation: electronic surveillance.

This year, the California Department of Justice (CADOJ) is releasing its report as a locked PDF file, and it will continue to release future reports in the same manner. Citizens and watch groups worry that this severely limits the publics’ access to information that has been, until now, freely available to anyone who wishes to view it.

According to many, the new policy set for by Attorney General Kamala Harris is a step backwards and a move in the opposite direction of the current nationwide trend to provide open data in an effort to maintain transparency.

The report for 2014 was released just last month. At 168 pages long, the report features complex tables, spanning multiple pages, and data regarding electronic surveillance requests and orders from round the state. For each single wiretap ordered, the report outlines exactly how communications were intercepted, the number of people affected by the wiretap, the total cost of surveillance, the number of arrests resulting from evidence gained, and the property seized as a result of the entire investigation.

Information from the report:

There were 971 wiretap applications filed during 2014 across California. This is an increase in 44% from a year before. As a result of wiretaps, there were around 480 arrests, many of which were related to drugs. Of those arrests, only 41 people were ultimately convicted.

More than half of the wiretap applications filed originated in Riverside County. Law enforcement agencies in that county filed 624 orders. In totality, wiretaps cost the state $31 million, a 17% increase over the year before. $28 million was used to pay various personnel, and $3.1 million was spent on supplies, equipment, and installation. There were 35 counties across the state that filed no orders at all, including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and San Mateo.

It took an extensive amount of time for interested parties to compile this information from the report, which many find not only cumbersome, but illegal. As it stands, the CADOJ is citing a section of the law that states, in part, records do not have to be handed over to the public if they “jeopardize or compromise the security or integrity of the original record.”

Watchdog groups are keeping a close eye on how the CADOJ responds to requests asking why the secrecy. If you believe that you have a right to know what your local law enforcement is up to, you should be keeping an eye on this as well. If there has been a loophole regarding the release of information such as this, open data advocates are wondering what information may be hidden next.

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Stephen Levine, is a Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Defense — an honor achieved by only the top criminal law attorneys in California. Mr. Levine has over 40 years of experience in criminal defense and family law serving Southern California, and is a highly regarded Super Lawyer as well as AV Rated attorney.