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Committee Approves Wiretaps for Child Sex Crimes

On April 24, the House Judiciary Committee approved, 20-4, a bill (H.R 1877) that would expand the use of wiretaps by law enforcement agents investigating the sexual exploitation of children.

Sponsored by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT), the bill would allow law enforcement officers to wiretap the conversations of individuals suspected of sending or receiving child pornography, coercing or enticing children to engage in prostitution or other illegal sexual activity, transporting children for related purposes, or buying and selling children for sexual exploitation. Under current law, officers are not allowed to use wiretaps when investigating such crimes.

Praising the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that it “protects our nation’s most vulnerable children” and that the “use of wiretaps significantly enhances criminal investigations.”

Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) disagreed, saying that the bill demonstrated an “unnecessary expansion of federal wiretap ability.”

The committee defeated two amendments offered by Rep. Scott. The first amendment would have limited wiretap authority to those crimes committed against children. Rep. Scott argued that the bill included crimes that “are not necessarily limited to children.”

Rep. Smith argued against the amendment, saying that it could “inhibit the investigation of the sex slave trade,” which predominantly affects women and children.

The second amendment would have granted wiretap authority only in cases where real-life images of children are transmitted over the Internet. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down a portion of the Child Pornography and Prevention Act of 1996, which defined child pornography to include real-life images of children as well as computer-generated images. The Supreme Court declared that the definition was overly broad and unconstitutional because by including computer-generated images it banned material that is neither obscene nor produced by the exploitation of real children, two standards set by previous case law.

“Last week, the Supreme Court said this was unconstitutional and you’re still trying to get a wiretap,” argued Rep. Scott. Rep. Smith disagreed with the characterization of the bill, saying that he was not “trying to get around the Supreme Court decision.”

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