How federal agents can tap your phones

Published: Feb. 14, 2017 at 10:37 PM CST
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Letters from the Department of Justice show the FBI tapped both Wichita businessman Brandon Steven and Sedgwick County commissioner Michael O'Donnell's cell phones in 2015.

Federal agents at the Epic Center won't say much about why they tapped Steven and O'Donnell, but here's how the process basically works.

A regular phone call or text message is a conversation between two phones. But when federal agents need to listen in - usually to search for evidence in a crime - they'll go to a judge and ask for permission to tap your phone.

"Basically, it's somewhat similar to a search warrant. You have to go to a judge with an affidavit which is a sworn under oath statement of sufficient facts, so that the judge believe there should be a wire tap," said Charley O'Hara, a criminal defense and federal law attorney.

Judges approving the tap can be local, state, or federal.

"It's something the judge doesn't do every day. It's somewhat unusual, but the judges do them. They do happen," O'Hara said.

If the judge approves the tap on your cell or landline, here what happens next.

Agents contact the carrier for the phone to be tapped, and all phone calls will be intercepted. A third party can listen in right away, or it can be recorded.

O'Hara says if it's a cell phone, the tap will probably cover text messages too.

The tap typically lasts for thirty days and after it's all over, investigators are required by law to tell everyone involved, their conversations were tapped.

"So even if you're some person who called for flowers on Valentine's Day, you could get a letter. That doesn't mean you did anything wrong," O'Hara said. "When the wiretap is over everyone who had contact with the member gets a letter."

Though wire taps usually last for thirty days, agents can request for extensions from the judge. O'Hara says the agents does have to explain why the renewal is necessary.