Wiretap bill raises difficult questions

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Sometimes it appears that we live in an age of techno-creep, Orwellian realities of intrusion that monitor and track our every move. From surveillance cameras that sit high atop our college campuses, to the lenses that peer and click our license plates, sending our vehicle’s information to a local law enforcement computer server. Red light infractions in Pasadena or a U-turn violation in Orange County. Wherever we go, the techno-beast seems to roam to and fro. Even cell phone camera capabilities allow students, as well as others, to “click and go” without anyone ever knowing.

Technology is neutral; it is neither malevolent nor benevolent. Its use can save and destroy lives, while it’s non-use in certain instances can shatter and cost lives.

Technology and its human components sometimes create a paradox, a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” dilemma. It would be difficult to find a paradox that more greatly illustrates this point than in California Assembly Bill 922.

Striking the proper balance between protecting the academic rights of college students and insuring the safety and security of those same students is a difficult task for both law enforcement officials and civil liberties activists alike.

AB 992 would have allowed CSUN police and other CSU and UC campus law enforcement agencies to conduct wiretaps, eavesdrop, and monitor cordless and cellular phone transmissions, currently allowed for local law enforcement agencies.

But the bill died in the legislature, due to pressure and opposition from well meaning and concerned persons and parties. The legalese of the bill stipulated that its intended purpose for peace officers on college campuses was for investigations related to sexual assaults and other sexual offenses.

The bill requires the consent of one party, namely the victim, to make the “call” to the alleged perpetrator for listening in on the conversation to see if a crime could potentially occur or has occurred.

Let’s face reality: There is a serious problem on college campuses, including CSUN, regarding sexual assault crimes and other sexual offenses. Data and statistics from the Department of Justice to our Valley Trauma Center, which works in cooperation with CSUN, prove this fact. So this isn’t a “liberal”, a “conservative” nor a “neo-conservative” issue, but rather a real issue for people who are raped or sexually assaulted annually.

If you just listen to the lyrics in some songs, you really don’t need state of the art eavesdropping or surveillance equipment to hear felony vulgar and misogynistic statements about rape and needing to “have it.”

The song is free speech, while the other is a criminal offense. So it’s easy to see why Jim Procida from Cal State Monterey and other campus police officials would desire an investigative tool such as eavesdropping (with one party consent) to prevent a tragedy such as a rape or a sexual assault against a student before it happens.

What does the police department on CSU and UC campuses say when a parent asks, “Why can’t you get the person who raped our daughter?” Their tools are limited if not “tied” by the death of AB 992, which would have made the investigation more efficient and expeditious without getting authorization from a district attorney’s office or an off campus local law enforcement agency.

But it’s also easy to see how abuses of power and authority raise the ire of civil rights activists and conscientious citizens alike. Power is always abused if left unchecked. Power abuses can be found in the pulpits, the White House, The president of the New York Stock Exchange, our military, and even in police agencies which are meant to serve and protect us.

Fransisco Lobaco, legislative director for the ACLU was opposed to AB 992, it’s understandable why. He said, “There are issues of oversight, issues of abuse, and there is no mechanism for oversight on these issues of abuse.”

AB 992, under California Penal Code Section 633.5, section 4, would have allowed for the eavesdropping and surveillance of annoying phone calls by campus police.

Now maybe it’s just me, but annoying phone calls don’t rise to the threshold of imminent danger and concern like sexual assaults and other sexual offenses. It’s like smoking marijuana versus a mayor of some city having lots of ammunition, drugs, and some money found at his or her home with a close friendship to a gang member.

Additionally, law enforcement personnel clearly stated that in order to conduct surveillance as specified in the bill, one party would have to consent to the communication. But let’s take a look at what the author of the bills statement said. According to the bill’s author, “this bill would add UC and CSU officers to the list of law enforcement entities that are permitted to monitor and record communications without an individual’s consent.”

One could possibly infer that without individuals consenting, one may conclude that you need no one!

I do not believe there is a Watergate anywhere around the corner, but historically, some legal documents drafted and implemented have created problems in the U.S.

The criminal justice system did monitor the guy who makes spaghetti and starred in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” and the Beatle who just wanted to give peace a little chance, after all.

Mechanisms for oversight of AB 992 apparently start with the presidents of universities. But there may be a problem.

The federal government funds many colleges and universities, and therefore can hypothetically leverage campuses into performing necessary actions as stipulated in the Patriot Act for example.

But what about our female students who are caught in the crosshairs by the death of AB 992 when some guy has got to “have it” and the victim says no and campus police need to act expeditiously?

And what about our students who are caught in the crosshairs of bill 992’s allowance for eavesdropping on annoying phone calls, when annoying is such a subjective term?

It appears that the machine called paradox in this case just may be relegated to humans with motivations and intentions that are suspect. Nonetheless it’s usually the voices and screams of the innocent people in our society who are drowned out by political and legal factionalism due to money, power, and prestige that sometimes overrides a students academic rights and their personal safety.

Kevin Grenon can be reached at kevin.grenon.28@csun.edu.