Law enforcement "wires" in the age of cellphones

I’m not sure whether to put this in Cafe Society or General Questions.

It’s common in TV shows and movies about crime for criminals who flip and help the police to wear a “wire” under their clothing, consisting of a microphone, some wires and a tape recorder or a radio transmitter. Criminals whose loyalty is questioned are often checked for “wires”.

I’ve seen this as late as in the 2000’s on the Sopranos. There was a scene where Christopher Moltisanti was checked for a wire shortly after he was made. Yet the characters on the Sopranos and other crime shows commonly carry cellphones around and nobody seems to care.

The whole idea of a big wire rig seems archaic in an age of ubiquitous cellphones. Are they still used in real life? It seems like it would be much safer to use a cellphone. You already have a microphone, battery, radio transmitter, and memory in your pocket, so why not just use that? They would just have to modify the phone to continuously record or transmit, and to not appear to do so. With smartphones it could probably be done with software alone.

Is anybody else disturbed by the preponderance of cellphones among TV criminals? It seems really sloppy and risky. If I was a mob boss, I would not allow any cellphones to be near me when discussing business.

An interesting point.
I wonder if it has anything to do with the legality of taping phone conversations.

Cellphones and movie/TV plots don’t mix well. That’s why scriptwriters are forced to resort to cliches like "no signal".

Prepaid cellphones need not be associated with your true identity, pay for the phone and top ups in cash and give bogus info for the account.

It bugged me that The Wire was so accurate in some respects, showed drug dealers using pagers in the 00’s. Everyone knows dealers use prepaid cells.

But you could have a fake cellphone. A cellphone case with the insides replaced with a microphone and transmitter that don’t use the cellular network, thus not constituting a “phone conversation”.

Heck, why does it even have to be a cellphone? With modern miniaturization it could be lots of things. A pen for example.

WAG: unlikely. Recording somebody without informing them of this fact is only illegal in about twenty states. It’s perfectly legal in the other thirty, and there are no federal laws against it, so you would be fine in a National Park, BLM land, Indian Casino, etc. But what the OP is describing is called eavesdropping, and it is patently illegal in all states and at the federal level. So what this suggests is that a police investigation, with appropriate warrants, etc., trumps all these constraints.

I remember the street level drug dealers using pagers early on, but during or after the first season they switched to prepaid cells (burners) and basically used those for the rest of the series.

You must not have watched past season 2. They focused quite a bit on prepaid cellphones (burners) starting in Season 3.

It’s one of the little touches that I like about Sons of Anarchy. Whenever there is a meeting in the ‘boardroom’ to discuss club activities everyone’s cellphone has to be left in a box outside the door.

Indeed I only watched the first two seasons :slight_smile:

When watching the first season the lack of cell phones and visible PCs made me think the show was set in the 80s, I went in cold.

Almost certainly not. Sending someone in with a wire (or installing microphones in a location) with the intent of using the recordings as evidence requires a warrant anyway.

(my bolding) Not true. cite: “Most states allow one-party consent, in which only one person who is part of the conversation has to agree to it being recorded.” Presumably the person actually wearing the wire has consented, so he’d legally be in the clear in those states. That doesn’t address the whole issue of the recording being used as evidence.

To be fair to the show, that was kind of the point within the Barksdale organization. They didn’t want to be tracked so they forbade cell phones.

And the cops had no computers because they had no budget.