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Police Can Now Wiretap Telephones of Suspected Drug Dealers Under New Law

May 21, 1988

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Gov. George Deukmejian signed a law Friday permitting state law enforcement officers to wiretap suspected big time drug dealers, but officials said the bill won’t add much punch to the war against drug-dealing street gangs.

The law is a long-sought, if partial, victory for police and conservatives, who spent decades seeking far broader powers to conduct electronic surveillance.

Outrage over drug-related gang violence overrode concerns about privacy and helped win passage of the bill, but some officials said the powers are too weak to be of much use against gangs.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said most gangs don’t deal in large enough quantities of drugs to trigger wiretapping.

″If you’re able to use it extensively for gangs, it would give law enforcement an insight into the structure of gangs,″ Gates said. ″They are very smart; much smarter than our legislators, unfortunately.″

Gates also criticized the bill because it only applies to drug crimes.

″It should be used for murders, kidnappings and terrorists. (But) we’re only using it for narcotics,″ he said, adding that federal investigators can use wiretaps to investigate a greater array of crimes.

Beginning Jan. 1, state and local law enforcement agencies may tap telephones in drug cases involving at least 10 gallons or three pounds of heroin, cocaine, PCP or methamphetamine.

Police must obtain permission to tap from a Superior Court judge. Officers conducting taps would have to go through special training, could not enter a private residence covertly to install a listening device and would have to report to the judge every 72 hours on the progress of the tap.

Unauthorized use of information obtained through a wiretap could result in a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment.

″The bill is not as strong as we’d like it to be. However, it is going to be an effective tool,″ Deukmejian said in signing the law at the Hall of Justice.

″This is not a panacea that will end all the drug abuse in California, but it’s a small tool we can use,″ said Grover Trask, the Riverside County district attorney and president of the California District Attorney’s Association.

Under the federal wiretapping law adopted in 1968, federal investigators can use electronic surveillance in certain murder cases, such as political assassinations and murders-for-hire, drug cases, and other suspected crimes such as bribery, racketeering, treason and sexual exploitation of children, said Jim Sander, assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.

There are no quantity limitations on the drug cases that can be investigated, he added.

The state Senate has approved wiretap legislation several times since 1970, but all previous attempts died in the Assembly. Many legislators and the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed wiretapping as an invasion of privacy.

But aided by the rising concern over gang activities, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats this year pushed the proposal around a committee that has blocked previous efforts in the lower house. The bill was approved by votes of 31-3 in the Senate and 49-19 in the Assembly.

ACLU officials did not return phone calls Friday.

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