Don’t let party politics
hamper law enforcement


Democrats in the Legislature have withdrawn support of a bill that would make Hawaii's wiretap laws comparable to federal law and laws in most other states.

IN retaliation for Governor Lingle's veto of a comprehensive bill aimed at combatting crystal methamphetamine, Democrats in the Legislature have withdrawn an administration-supported proposal to facilitate the use of wiretaps in drug investigations. Democrats had no trouble overriding the veto, and the additional swipe at the Republican governor will be felt more by a public concerned about "ice" than by partisan advocates. The wiretap measure should be enacted before the Legislature adjourns.

The partisan acrimony is not surprising. The Lingle administration gave ice a high priority last September when Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a former drug court judge, organized a three-day summit of more than 400 public officials. A House-Senate task force responded with an ambitious plan to increase counseling, treatment and drug education, directing law enforcement mainly at traffickers. Lingle criticized it as "simply throwing money at a problem."

The bill approved by the Legislature seems to offer a balance between treatment of novice ice users and tougher penalties for manufacturers and traffickers. It clarifies a law that was intended to make first-time drug offenders eligible for probation and drug treatment, even if they had committed nonviolent felonies. The law caused confusion in the courts, and the new law will allow judges flexibility in such cases.

Republicans attacked the ice bill as being soft on drug offenders, even though it incorporated much of what the Aiona summit had recommended, including expansion of the Drug Court. The vote was strictly along party lines, with Democrats prevailing 19-4 in the Senate and 35-13 in the House.

In a separate bill, the Senate and House had agreed to change Hawaii's wiretap laws to better combat drug trafficking. The bill would bring Hawaii into conformity with a 35-year-old federal law and the laws in about 40 states, allowing authorities to obtain a wiretap after providing a judge probable cause of criminal activity and that a wiretap will produce evidence of the crime.

Hawaii's law allows an attorney appointed as a "devil's advocate" to participate in an adversarial process before the judge. When elongated hearings proceed, targets of the wiretap being sought often hear of the attempt, jeopardizing the investigation and putting undercover officers at risk. Hawaii prosecutors essentially have quit trying to gain permission and, because Hawaii's law is more confining, information gained from federal wiretaps cannot be used against defendants in state court.

Legislators had agreed early in the Legislature to mend the wiretap law. That seemed to be a reasonable compromise after lawmakers rejected another proposal by the administration and the law-enforcement community to allow police to "walk and talk" with suspected drug traffickers at airports. Retreating from the compromise would create unreasonable difficulties for authorities to gather evidence against ice traffickers.



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