SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian on Wednesday labeled as "inexcusable" and "inconceivable" an Assembly committee's refusal earlier this week to approve legislation that would allow police to tap the telephones of suspected drug dealers.
The governor, in a harsh attack on the Democratic-controlled Public Safety Committee, said the panel's action threatens to deny law enforcement "the tools it needs to combat drug trafficking in California."
"In case the committee hadn't noticed, the (incidence) of drug trafficking in California is escalating, not declining," Deukmejian said in a statement released by his office. "The time for immediate action has long passed."
The wiretapping bill, authored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), is a key element in a package of anti-drug legislation being sought by Deukmejian because of what he called a "staggering" rise in cocaine trafficking throughout California. Other bills in the package call for longer sentences and new laws to make it easier for police to confiscate drug dealers' personal property.
On Monday, Presley shelved the wiretapping bill because of strong opposition from a solid bloc of Democrats on the committee who have fought the measure as a potential invasion of privacy.
Presley, a former Riverside County undersheriff, said Wednesday that he will seek a hearing on a scaled-down version of the bill, which would limit wiretaps to drug investigations and require prior approval by the attorney general as well as the courts. In its current form, the bill, although aimed at drug dealers, would allow wiretapping of suspected murders and kidnapers as well.
Federal authorities already have the power to tap telephone conversations with court approval. But state law forbids the practice by state and local investigators, even with a warrant issued by a judge.
Although Presley's bill passed the Senate 24 to 3, the Assembly has a tradition of resisting such measures and the Legislature has killed wiretapping legislation nearly a dozen times in the last two decades. As in the past, the Presley bill was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Trial Lawyers Assn., a politically powerful lobby that holds great sway with Democrats on the Public Safety Committee.
Meanwhile, dissident Democrats known as the "Gang of Five" have indicated that they might try to bypass the committee and, by joining with Assembly Republicans, jam the wiretapping provisions into another bill awaiting a vote on the Assembly floor.
Both Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) and "Gang of Five" member Gerald Eaves (D-Rialto) said they were prepared last week to take that action. But Presley said he intervened and asked both sides to delay the move.
"I'd like to see Nolan and the Gang of Five sit tight for now," Presley said. "I think we can win this one."
Deukmejian has long been identified with efforts to grant police wide latitude to eavesdrop on telephone conversations and had called for similar measures both as state attorney general and as a state senator.
In his statement, the governor noted that 32 other states have granted state and local police the authority to tap phones. He contended that a wiretapping law enacted three years ago by the Florida Legislature has helped push the drug trade west.