Fed up with phone companies jeopardizing their wiretap investigations, the city state's attorney's office is taking Nextel Communications to court for contempt in hopes that the wireless industry will stop impeding police eavesdropping.
Assistant State's Attorney Jill J. Myers has asked a Circuit Court judge to fine Nextel for "intentional and willful noncompliance" with a court order demanding that the company not turn off a cell phone number used by an alleged drug kingpin.
In that case, detectives say service disruptions tipped off the suspects to the wiretap, effectively grounding their investigation of Andre L. Cotton, 31, and the large heroin ring he allegedly supervised in West and Northwest Baltimore.
"I want them to take it a little more seriously," said Myers, who heads the office's wiretap unit, of the wireless companies. "We only bother to use wiretaps on violent drug organizations, so these are very serious investigations."
Nextel, which will respond to the contempt petition at a hearing May 9, isn't the only company that has frustrated city law enforcement by mistaken disconnections. Myers says detectives have had similar problems with AT&T; Wireless and Sprint. Although she could not say how many times the companies had interfered with wiretapped lines, it happens "fairly regularly," she said.
Maj. Anthony G. Cannavale, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's drug enforcement unit, is equally troubled. All too often his officers find that a crucial wiretapped line is suddenly dead and they must scramble to have it reactivated before the suspect figures out what's happened and abandons the phone.
In addition, prosecutors and police sometimes have to resubmit lengthy affidavits to a judge asking for permission to set up another wiretap or surveillance of the calls a phone makes and receives - delays that can foil a case.
"While it might be just a glitch for the phone company, it might mean the difference between a successful and a failed investigation," Cannavale said. "Their equipment and their technology is being used for illegal acts. ... it seems to me they have the responsibility to be part of the solution."
Nextel spokeswoman Audrey Schaefer would not discuss the state's accusations or say how many of the company's phone customers are under surveillance. But she did say Nextel has an entire unit dedicated to working with police.
"We take our responsibility to the public as a whole and to law enforcement extremely seriously," Schaefer said.
Clearly the problem is widespread in the business. Last year, AT&T; Wireless came up with a system designed to ensure that people in the billing department didn't inadvertently undo the work of the company's "National Subpoena Compliance Center," set up in 1998.
A memo about the system warns law enforcement agencies that it's not foolproof, however. Only certain employees are allowed to know when lines are under surveillance, for example, which means instances of wrongfully disconnected phones are inevitable. Also, suspects might figure out something's amiss when their phones keep working months after they stop paying for them.
In the Cotton case, the state's petition alleges that despite a court order requiring the company to keep the line active no matter what, Nextel disconnected the phone twice during a two-month wiretap - first because it was set up by a fraudulent account, and later because of unpaid bills.
Both times the service was restored after detectives complained, but the disruption apparently piqued Cotton's suspicion.
According to police transcripts of the wiretap, on March 13, the day of the second disconnection, Cotton, 31, said to his brother, John D. Cotton, 28, that "something wrong with these joints here, yo for real."
"You better watch what you say on this joint," John Cotton replied.
The brothers quickly stopped using the phone, and the investigation came to a halt.
Andre Cotton has been indicted on kingpin charges; his brother is charged with drug conspiracy, and about 20 other people are expected to be co-defendants in the case. But Myers says the curtailed investigation means detectives were not able to find the source of the group's heroin, or track down all the voices they overheard on the wiretapped line.
In an effort to destroy large drug organizations, Baltimore detectives and prosecutors have greatly stepped up their use of wiretaps in the past year, investing huge amounts of time and money in special technology units.
The initiative has resulted in the indictments of 119 people - and has heightened drug dealers' awareness that their cell phone conversations might be used against them in court. Hoping to outmaneuver police, dealers talk in code and even buy cell phones in bulk, throwing them away after just a few days of use.
The criminals' savvy was clear during the drug kingpin trial last year of Dante C. Linton, 31, now serving a 25-year sentence. "I mean, that's just a general rule," he told a friend during a cell phone conversation, "don't talk a lot on the phone."
Investigators say adding the phone companies to the list of hindrances is too much to bear. Hence the Nextel petition. "I hope it raises the level of awareness on their side," Cannavale said.