WILKES-BARRE — In a major victory for law enforcement, a state appellate court has issued a ruling that will free police to continue to use text messaging to communicate with suspects in drug cases and other crimes.
The decision, issued Tuesday by the state Superior Court, overturns a 2008 ruling by a Luzerne County judge that suppressed evidence against two men who were arrested after a police officer, posing an an accomplice, sent a text message to one of the men relating to a drug delivery.
The decision means county prosecutors can now proceed with the case against Jeffrey Cruttenden and Stephen Lanier, who were charged in March 2007 with conspiring to deliver 35 pounds of marijuana in Wilkes-Barre.
A Luzerne County prosecutor said the ruling in the case will have have statewide impact, as it decided whether police officers need to obtain a warrant before using text messages to communicate with suspects under investigation for criminal conduct.
The case centered on the interpretation of the state’s wiretap law and whether a police officer could be deemed to have “intercepted” a communication between two people when he pretended to be someone else in a text conversation.
Cruttenden and Lanier were arrested after a police officer used a cellphone of a third suspect, Michael Amodeo, to send messages to Lanier relating to the alleged delivery of marijuana.
Under the state wiretap law, police must obtain a warrant before they can intercept communications between criminal suspects. In the Lanier and Cruttenden case, prosecutors argued the officer did not need a warrant because he was communicating directly with Lanier, therefore he did not intercept a conversation between other people.
The state Superior Court initially upheld the suppression of evidence in a June 2009 ruling. Prosecutors appealed to the state Supreme Court, which overturned the Superior Court ruling in December 2012.
In its precedent-setting ruling, the Supreme Court said the fact a police officer was pretending to be someone else was irrelevant to the wiretap law.
“That a police officer does not identify him or herself, or misrepresents his or her identity, does not change the fact that he or she is a direct party to the conversation,” the court said. “The applicability of the (wiretap) act does not rest on whether the caller’s presumption of the identity of the person answering the call is accurate.”
The Supreme Court ruling did not technically end the case, however, as the high court remanded the matter back to the Superior Court to reconsider its ruling.
The Superior Court, in a two-page opinion, adopted the Supreme Court’s ruling in whole.
Assistant District Attorney Jim McMonagle, who argued the case, said the ruling will help ensure police continue to have a useful tool to combat crime. Had the ruling been adverse, “it would have made it more difficult for law enforcement because criminals would have technology that police could not use.”