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Bill named for fallen officer would allow wiretaps on suspected felony drug offenders

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Some lawmakers want Alabama law enforcement to be able to use wiretaps to pursue felony drug offenders.

Rep. Rex Reynolds, a former Huntsville police chief, has pre-filed House Bill 14, which lays out the process for the Alabama Attorney General to submit applications to a circuit court judge to intercept wire or electronic communications under certain circumstances.

“This bill is designed to go after drug trafficking organizations and pretty much dismantle them from the top,” Reynolds told Alabama Daily News.

Reynolds sponsored a similar bill in 2019. It was approved by the House Judiciary Committee but never got a vote on the House floor.

“Both Republicans and Democrats worked with me to get the support of the Judiciary Committee,” Reynolds said.

This year, the bill is titled the “Agent Billy Clardy III Act.” Clardy, a Huntsville police officer and drug task force member, was shot and killed during a drug buy set up by authorities at a residence where they expected a suspect to drop off a large amount of drugs, according to media reports. The suspect, LaJeromeny Brown, 41, of Tennessee was captured. He has an arrest record going back to 2004. He’s been charged with capital murder.

“If this bill had been in place, (law enforcement) would have had another tool to go after that drug trafficker and collect additional information on that person before they effected an arrest,” Reynolds said.

Rep. Andy Whitt, R-Harvest, is a co-sponsor on HB14. He went to school with Clardy and said he was “the definition of an outstanding law enforcement officer.” 

Whitt said the bill is designed to go after drug traffickers, not someone selling a little marijuana on the street corner or smoking discretely in their home.

He called drug traffickers “cowards whose sole purpose is to poison and destroy our communities.” 

Current state law doesn’t allow for wiretaps. Federal law does, “but those are hard to come by,” Reynolds said.

Forty-four states have laws that authorize courts to issue orders permitting wire, oral or electronic surveillance, according to a 2018 report from the United States Courts.

The bill says the wire tap request has to go through the Attorney General’s office and be approved by a circuit court judge. The request must include an affidavit that details the specific offense that has been committed, is being committed, or will be committed and “a statement that other investigative procedures have been tried and failed, reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried, or are too dangerous to be tried.”

A judge can approve the intercept if certain criteria are met, including probable cause the individual has or will commit a felony drug offense and probable cause to believe that specific communications concerning that offense will be obtained through the intercept.

Reynolds’ bill says the wiretap may not be authorized for “any period longer than is necessary to achieve the objective of the authorization” and not for more than 30 days. Extensions by a judge are possible.

Each year, the attorney general’s office would issue a report including the number of wiretap orders approved and the number of resulting arrests, trials and convictions.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the bill but didn’t yet have a comment on it. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency supports the bill.

“The opioid crisis continues to have a strong presence in Alabama targeting our youth and drug addicted populations,” a written statement from ALEA said. “Heroin has returned to our streets — stronger and cheaper. Cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana trafficking continues to have a negative impact on our communities. Local law enforcement agencies are reaching out to ALEA for assistance in taking down large drug trafficking organization. 

“Wiretap is the most effective tool available allowing agencies to dismantle an entire drug organization, not just one or two individuals. This bill only authorizes the use of wiretap for felony drug trafficking when all other investigative tools are exhausted.”

Surrounding Southern states with wiretap authority include Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, ALEA said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, Reynolds said. Ward is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The legislative session starts Feb. 4.

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