The state Senate, asked to help stem the tide of drug trafficking and other serious crimes, approved a measure Thursday that would allow California law enforcement officers to tap telephones much as federal agencies have done for years.
The bill, generally modeled after federal wiretap laws, was sent to the Assembly on a bipartisan 27-6 vote. Similar legislation in previous years has been routinely killed in the Assembly.
During debate, opponents evoked memories of Watergate and charged that police would be likely to use the legislation to harass marijuana users and even elected officials suspected of shaking down potential campaign contributors.
“Someone could easily accuse you unjustly of extortion, and that in and of itself would warrant a wiretap,” Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) told his colleagues. “I don’t engage in that kind of practice, but nobody wants to be accused of that.”
Roberti said that people with alternative life styles--particularly those “who move in the kinds of society where marijuana is used"--would be likely targets of electronic surveillance.
But Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), the author, said that the bill contains numerous safeguards and that the tremendous expense of conducting legal wiretaps would, as a practical matter, limit the practice to the most serious allegations of criminal behavior.
“Given the problems particularly of the South American narcotics situation,” Presley said, “it seems like an appropriate time to put this law on the books.”
The bill’s easy victory in the Senate, however, belies the difficulty that such measures have always encountered in various stages of the legislative process.
Similar efforts date back to the late 1960s, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan proposed a wiretapping bill. The Senate passed similar measures in 1970, 1977 and 1979, including one by then-Sen. George Deukmejian. But all of those bills, strongly supported by law enforcement, died in an Assembly committee.
This time, Presley said that he expects a better reception, because the bill is “more tightly drawn” to safeguard the rights of the public.
His measure would allow wiretaps in investigations of murder, kidnaping, robbery, extortion and in “significant” cases of drug trafficking.
The wiretaps would require prior authorization in the form of a court order or an informal approval by a judge in “life- or limb-threatening cases.” The surveillance would be monitored by the attorney general’s office and require the filing of progress reports with the judge who authorized the wiretap.
The measure also would prohibit covert entry into private homes to install surveillance equipment.
Federal agencies, including the FBI, have conducted electronic surveillance under regulations adopted in 1968 as part of the federal Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. Since that time, at least 16 states have enacted similar laws.
Florida’s recent adoption of a wiretapping law, Presley said, has become a major factor in switching drug operations to the West Coast.
Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) said that he believes the bill was not drawn tightly enough and that the use of the term “significant” in describing drug cases eligible for wiretap approval was too broad.
‘Just One of Those Things’
“Someone may define significant as 10 marijuana cigarettes,” Hart said. “Like it or not, there are a lot of people in this state who use marijuana.”
Presley conceded that there could be cases in which innocent people would be put under surveillance. “It’s just one of those things,” he said. “You can’t win all the time.” But he added that murder, extortion and drug trafficking “ought to be considered dirty businesses” and subject to wiretapping.