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Kentucky bill to expand local wiretapping powers unlikely this session

Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, R-Louisville, speaks on House Bill 5, or the Safer Kentucky Act, on the House floor on Thursday.
Andrew West
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LRC Public Information
Republican Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher from Louisville speaks on House Bill 5, or the Safer Kentucky Act, on the House floor on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

Despite a push last year by Kentucky Republican legislators and Louisville’s Democratic mayor to expand wiretapping powers for state and local law enforcement, a bill to do so is not likely to be filed in the 2024 session of the General Assembly.

Kentucky is one of only a few states where local officials cannot seek a warrant to wiretap a criminal suspect’s phone or communications, though federal officials have such powers.

State House Republicans from Louisville sought to change this as part of an omnibus anti-crime bill they unveiled in September, dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act.” Democratic Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg joined them in supporting this part of the bill, arguing new wiretapping powers would give city law enforcement the tools needed to fight gang violence.

However, the effort to pass it into law started to fall apart in December when the wiretapping portion of the bill faced opposition within the Republican caucus from members with civil liberties concerns. The Safer Kentucky Act’s lead sponsor dropped wiretapping from the bill, though GOP Rep. Kevin Bratcher of Louisville said he would file his own standalone bill with that measure at the time.

While the Safer Kentucky Act — House Bill 5 — passed the House Thursday on a nearly party-line vote, Bratcher told Kentucky Public Radio this week that he no longer plans to file a wiretapping bill this session, saying his plate is full with other legislation and he doesn’t know of anyone else who will.

Asked about the diminished prospect of wiretapping legislation, Greenberg issued a statement Friday that his administration is “continuing to advocate for a state wiretapping law.”

“After yesterday’s more than two hour floor debate on violent crime in our cities, it is clear that Members of the General Assembly want to take action and it is our hope that they will focus on giving our largest law enforcement agencies the tools needed to identify and apprehend gang leaders and our most violent offenders, which would include a state wiretapping law,” the statement read.

Greenberg has endorsed several portions of the wide-ranging HB 5 including increasing penalties for carjacking and creating a process to destroy some guns used in murders.

Friday afternoon a spokesperson for Greenberg sent a statement saying Louisville's mayor continues to support some provisions of the Safer Kentucky Act, but not others.

"With deliberations now moving to the Senate, I’m going to keep advocating for measures that prevent crimes, keep guns out of the wrong hands, and help us apprehend violent offenders,” Greenberg said in the statement.

All but one Democrat voted against HB 5, with members heavily criticizing it in floor speeches. They said it would harm the homeless population, unreasonably burden the state prison system and not reduce violent crime, despite its intent.

“All I see here in the suffer Kentucky act… is more problems,” Louisville Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond said.

One of the chief Republican critics of the original wiretapping proposal was state Rep. Savannah Maddox of Dry Ridge, who welcomed the news that such a bill is unlikely this session.

“My time in Frankfort has taught me that no bill is truly dead until Sine Die, but I am relieved to hear that the wiretapping proposal appears to have lost momentum among my colleagues,” Maddox said. “Wiretapping was, and continues to be, a non-starter for me.”

This story has been updated.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.