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Davis to Keep Pushing for Expanded Wiretap Power

Security: Governor and GOP lawmakers both say state needs added authority despite negative legal opinion.

January 17, 2002|MIGUEL BUSTILLO and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis reaffirmed his commitment Wednesday to expanding California's wiretapping laws despite a legal opinion from the Legislature's top lawyer that the centerpiece of that plan--roving wiretaps for state and local police--exceeds the state's powers.

Davis also said during a news conference that wiretapping legislation by Assemblyman Carl Washington (D-Paramount) that was sharply pared back this week amid legal and civil liberties concerns contained only some of his suggestions. Davis called for roving wiretaps last week in his State of the State address.

"We believe that if that is good enough for the federal government, it is good enough for state government," Davis said of expanding wiretapping for state and local authorities. "Some people suggest that the Washington bill exceeded the federal provisions. That is not our intent."

Washington's measure, AB 74, initially would have allowed state and local authorities to run roving wiretaps on suspected criminals and also conduct surveillance of e-mail and Internet communications. Both were identified by Davis and his new security advisor, George Vinson, as areas where the Democratic governor was seeking to expand state law to mirror federal law.

But Washington trimmed both provisions out of his bill Tuesday. It now merely would allow state and local authorities to obtain wiretaps against people suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction or biohazardous agents such as anthrax. It also expands the general authority of police and prosecutors to use wiretaps in the state, which is set to expire next year.

The legislative counsel's office, which advises lawmakers on their bills, notified Washington before the hearing on his measure that although President Bush had recently signed a law to bolster wiretapping by federal authorities to target terrorists, states were not authorized under federal law to use roving wiretaps.

Davis administration officials downplayed the legal opinion but acknowledged they may now push for less-expansive changes in wiretapping law.

With regular wiretaps, police and prosecutors have to request permission from a judge to listen to a specific phone line. Roving wiretaps allow authorities to have the surveillance follow the suspect, tapping any phones the person might use without going back to a judge for permission.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca have advocated roving wiretaps at the state level, arguing that state law has failed to keep up with technological advances and criminals can now easily thwart conventional wiretaps by switching phones.

"What we are really talking about is trying to get someone who uses multiple mobile phones to escape detection, which is something a lot of narcotics dealers are now doing," said Jim Provenza, the district attorney's legislative director.

But civil libertarians have denounced the idea, arguing that roving wiretaps trample on the 4th Amendment's limits on government searches. They also argue that wiretaps result in few convictions compared with the countless private conversations they violate.

"They are using the specter of terrorism, but the reality is this would be used in California to go after drug dealers," said Francisco Lobaco, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The feds are going to handle all terrorism cases."

So far, Washington's measure has been the only bill dealing with the wiretapping issue, but some Republicans upset over the direction of the debate may introduce their own legislation. Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside), a former prosecutor, said he is outraged that liberal lawmakers are trying to block what he sees as common-sense legislation.

"There are things we can do," Pacheco said. "The thing that disturbed me most was the easy willingness to abandon the safety of our constituents. How do you forget what happened on Sept. 11? That [Washington] bill does nothing now."

However, with the Legislature controlled by Democrats, lobbyists and lawmakers said the chances of a GOP lawmaker passing a wiretapping measure are remote. Washington's bill is still considered the likely vehicle for changes to wiretapping law--and many of those involved in the issue say a compromise is possible.

Law enforcement advocates are shifting focus from roving wiretaps to a system that would allow police and prosecutors to quickly add new phone numbers to existing wiretap orders. That would still require a judge's approval, but would be handled under an expedited process in which authorities would not have to resubmit all previous paperwork.

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