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Nextel, investigators form agreement

Investigators in Baltimore reach an agreement with Nextel Communications after a clash over how the carrier was shutting off stolen cell phones used by drug dealers.

Drug investigators in Baltimore reached an agreement Thursday with Nextel Communications after the two clashed over how the carrier was shutting off stolen cell phones used by drug dealers, despite court orders to keep the phones turned on.

Nextel usually realizes its error and turns the phones back on, but the disruptions and resurrections tipped at least one alleged drug kingpin to a wiretap on the phone and destroyed months of work, attorneys for the city of Baltimore told a judge Thursday.

"Something wrong with these joints here," an alleged Baltimore-area dealer is caught on a wiretap saying after his phone is shut off, and turned back on, for the second time. "Yo, for real. You know they on that hot sheet," his alleged accomplice answers back, according to court records.

"Nextel and other carriers need to take these warrants more seriously," said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, which had asked the judge to find Nextel in contempt of court for not cooperating with them on a wiretap request. "They don't recognize it, though."

Thursday's proceeding in a Baltimore Circuit Court was to determine if Nextel should be punished for not obeying a court order to "keep these phones on, no matter what," which is written into the language of the wiretap approval by a judge in a particular drug case.

The two sides told the judge on Thursday that they had agreed to drop the case in exchange for Nextel promising to put in place fixes for the problems. Nextel also promised to perform more in-house testing of the way it handles wiretap demands.

Burns said both AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS have had similar problems. The problem isn't just limited to Baltimore, either, sources said. The New York City Police Department has had similar complaints about wireless carriers in the past, according to one source there. Sprint and AT&T Wireless are not part of today's legal action.

A representative for Nextel said the company has an entire unit devoted to tracking court-ordered wiretaps. She declined to discuss today's court action.

At the heart of the problem seems to be the automated billing systems that carriers are using. They have replaced employees with more efficient computers capable of churning out thousands of bills at a time. But that has come at a price, said AT&T Wireless spokeswoman Alexa Graf.

Stolen phones, or phones with long-overdue accounts--favorite tools for drug dealers--are "red-flagged" by the system for shut down. It's up to the carrier to catch this before the computer completes its task and ends service, Graf said. She said the company had similar problems in the past and continues to try and find a fix.

She said one of the problems is the nature of a wiretap itself. No one is supposed to know about it, not even the employees whose decision to turn off the account could jeopardize a major drug investigation.

"If someone sees they haven't paid their bill, we'd disconnect it," she said. "But the person responsible for all that doesn't know there's a wiretap request. The request often says 'don't tell anybody' there's a wiretap on this line."

She adds that the effort to keep these phones working might eventually tip off drug dealers that the cops are listening in.

"If you haven't paid your bill in six months, and you keep getting service, then you're going to start thinking something's up anyway," she said.

A Sprint PCS representative did not return a call for comment.