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Assembly OKs Wiretap Bill for Drug Fight

Times Staff Writer

A bill allowing local and state police to electronically eavesdrop on suspected drug dealers was passed Thursday on a 48-18 vote by the Assembly, ending a debate that has gone on in that legislative house for more than a dozen years.

The measure, derided by civil libertarians as an affront to privacy rights, but defended by prosecutors as necessary to stop the drug “cancer,” would overturn California’s long-held prohibition against wiretapping.

Recently embraced by Gov. George Deukmejian as a key element of his package of anti-drug legislation, the wiretap bill now goes to the Senate, which already has approved a more sweeping measure.

The bill’s Assembly passage, on a strong bipartisan vote, represented a dramatic turnaround for legislation that had languished in a committee dominated by liberal appointees of Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), a strong opponent of wiretapping.

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It was the second major victory in a week for the dissident “Gang of Five” Democrats who teamed up with the GOP to bring the bill to a floor vote. Last week, these moderate to conservative Democrats, who are leading a rebellion against Brown, won Assembly passage of a bill extending the death penalty to murderers of children--the first time a death penalty bill had cleared the house in more than a decade.

Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who authored the wiretap measure, called Thursday’s vote historic and predicted easy passage in the Senate.

“What’s really important,” Presley said, “is that by virtue of passing this bill we will have given law enforcement a very important tool to include in the drug fight.”

But a disheartened Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), calling the wiretap legislation “a foundation to a house of delusion,” launched a spirited defense of the committee system under which at least 13 similar bills had been rejected since 1970.

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Merits of System Told

“We’ve just seen why we have a committee system,” Roos said. “It hopefully protects not only each and every one of us, but society and the communities we represent from having their civil liberties and rights abused. . . . We’re opening the door to a huge Big Brother with all kinds of possible abuses.”

The bill would allow law enforcement officers to place wiretaps on the phones of suspected dealers in cocaine, heroine, methamphetamine, PCP and other illegal drugs--but not marijuana--provided that the authorities work through a district attorney or the attorney general’s office and have approval of a Superior Court judge.

To obtain permission, the officers must show that the suspected dealer is trying to peddle large quantities of the drugs--more than 10 gallons of liquid or three pounds of solids--and agree to provide the court with progress reports every 72 hours.

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Police would not be allowed to covertly enter a residence to place a wiretap, but could call on the telephone company to tap a phone line.

Officers would be able to use evidence gathered from a tapped phone conversation against a person who had nothing to do with a drug deal but happened to be caught on tape talking to a suspected dealer. However, the evidence could be used only to prevent another crime from being committed, or in a situation where a crime would have been “inevitably discovered” through other means.

1995 Expiration Date

As passed by the Assembly, the wiretap bill would automatically expire in 1995 unless renewed by the Legislature.

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The federal government and 31 states already have similar authority to eavesdrop, although that power generally is not limited to drug dealers as is the case under the California bill.

While local and state officials now can call on federal agencies to use their wiretap authority to investigate big California drug deals, prosecutors contend that federal officials are reluctant to add to their own workloads and routinely reject such requests.

“In the real world, federal authorities are swamped,” said Allen H. Sumner, who heads the attorney general’s legislative unit.

Civil libertarians, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, contend that wiretaps are expensive and often yield few results while imperiling citizens’ right to privacy.

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“This bill will pass because (legislators) are not willing to educate their constituents to the facts,” said Marjorie C. Swartz, the ACLU’s Sacramento lobbyist. “They feel the public wants it because of their concerns about crime. . . . Rather than risk it, these politicians will vote for it.”

Thursday’s debate was delayed by a rash of ceremonial events, which included introduction of former Raider football star John Matuszak and the swearing-in of San Francisco Democrat John Burton, who was elected this week to fill out the Assembly term of San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos.

Friend of Brown

Burton, an outspoken liberal and longtime personal friend of Brown, immediately cast his lot with the Speaker, telling his supporters gathered at the rear of the chamber: “I’m going to cast my first vote against a bill I think undermines the Constitution.”

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Thursday’s Assembly floor debate was marked by passionate speeches that alternated between criticism of the “dark door” that lawmakers were opening by passing the measure and praise of wiretapping as the ultimate tool to end drug dealing, gang violence and other societal ills.

“I grant you this is a drastic measure, but in a war you have to use drastic measures,” declared Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (D-San Pedro). “If it puts one drug lord behind bars, it has accomplished what we set out to do.”

But critics, including Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), contended that the wiretap bill, like the death penalty bill before it, is a disguised attempt to brighten the reelection prospects of Republicans and Democrats from conservative districts.

“The real question,” Floyd said, “is can we vote on a measure that allows us to do a campaign piece that shows the public how much we hate drugs?.”

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