California legislators move to outlaw inmate cellphones

Reporting from Sacramento -- State lawmakers Wednesday moved to outlaw cellphones for state prisoners and advanced a measure to award special treatment to a proposed football stadium in Los Angeles.

Contraband cellphones have proliferated inside California lockups in recent years as inmates have paid up to $1,000 for the devices to communicate with the outside world.

“We know they’ve been used to organize street gangs, traffic drugs and intimidate witnesses,” said state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), author of the bill, which the Assembly approved 74 to 0.

Smuggling of cellphones into prisons would be punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.


The state Senate has already approved the measure, SB 26. After technical amendments in that house, it is expected to go to Gov. Jerry Brown, who as attorney general was outspoken about the dangers posed by inmates with phones.

Even notorious killer Charles Manson was found with phones behind bars, but leaders in Sacramento have been unable to agree on how to address the issue. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, saying the penalties weren’t stiff enough.

Some phones have been delivered by corrupt guards, prison officials acknowledge. But the state’s only recourse has been to fire them, because there’s no law against smuggling a phone to an inmate even though it is a violation of prison rules.

Padilla’s bill stopped short of requiring that corrections officers submit to airport-style searches on their way into prisons, as visitors and attorneys do. The politically powerful guards union has thwarted that suggestion by noting that their contract compels the state to pay for “walk time” — guards’ journey from the prison gate to their final post. Metal detectors along the way would slow them down and cost taxpayers millions, the union has argued.

Also Wednesday, the Assembly overwhelmingly approved a Padilla bill that would grant expedited legal review to Anschutz Entertainment Group’s proposal for a 72,000-seat football stadium in downtown L.A.

The measure would require challenges to the project to be resolved in 175 days. Supporters say that’s necessary to assure investors and the NFL that the project would not be jeopardized by protracted litigation.

The bill, SB 292, won the backing of state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who said he would introduce a companion measure to extend the benefit to other projects.

“The goal of the bill is simply to get people back to work sooner rather than later,” Steinberg said.

He declined to discuss details of his bill, but lawmakers briefed on the proposal say it could apply to projects that have price tags in the hundreds of millions of dollars and meet strict environmental standards. The governor would choose which merited streamlined legal review.

The Assembly also approved measures that would allow San Francisco to raise its vehicle license fees and would implement a pilot project in four counties allowing hemp to be grown for industrial purposes. Both measures, after minor amendments in the Senate, are expected to go to Brown.

While lawmakers acted on more than 150 proposals Wednesday, Brown vetoed several measures, including higher fines for motorists using hand-held cellphones, a requirement that minors wear helmets while skiing and a ban on picketing at military funerals.

Brown said it was unnecessary to increase the base fine from $20 to $50 for texting or talking on a cellphone while driving. “For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent,” his veto message said.

Brown said he found picketing at military funerals “offensive,” but he rejected a proposed ban on the practice, saying courts have determined that it is a right of free speech.

Rejecting the ski-helmet bill, the governor decried “nanny” legislation.

“While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state,” Brown wrote. “Not every human problem deserves a law. I believe parents have the ability and responsibility to make good choices for their children.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Michael J. Mishak and Nicholas Riccardi in Sacramento contributed to this report.