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Originally published Thursday, February 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Parental snooping bill gets a hearing

Parents would be allowed to eavesdrop on their children's phone conversations or intercept their mail under a bill that went before the...

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Parents would be allowed to eavesdrop on their children's phone conversations or intercept their mail under a bill that went before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.

The law is being proposed in the wake of a recent state Supreme Court ruling that a mother violated Washington's privacy law by eavesdropping on her daughter's phone conversations.

Under House Bill 1178, a parent would not break the law by snooping on a child's phone calls and information a parent gleaned from the intercepted communications also could be used in court. Some critics have expressed concern about the bill.

"We have a right of privacy that ought not be taken from a child unless you meet an extremely high burden, that the parents' violation of that right meets some greater good," said committee Chairwoman Patricia Lantz, D-Gig Harbor. "How are we going to measure that?"

Lantz said the bill, as worded now, has a "rough road to travel."

In December, the state Supreme Court ruled that Carmen Dixon's testimony against a friend of her daughter should not have been admitted in court because it was based on an intercepted conversation.

The justices unanimously ordered a new trial for Oliver Christensen, who had been convicted of second-degree robbery, in part because of Dixon's testimony. Dixon had been asked by San Juan County Sheriff Bill Cumming to be alert for any possible evidence in a Friday Harbor purse snatching. When Christensen called Dixon's 14-year-old daughter, Dixon listened in.

After that ruling, Cumming said it likely would not result in parents being prosecuted for snooping. But the ruling prohibited courts and law enforcement from using the results of such snooping.

Washington is one of 11 states that requires consent from all parties involved before a conversation may be intercepted or recorded. The other states are California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

Rep. Joyce McDonald, D-Puyallup, said it was important that the state does not turn "conscientious parents into criminals."

"I think we would all agree that children do not have an expectation of privacy that protects them from the care of a conscientious parent," she said in a public hearing on the bill.

But Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, the committee vice chairman, questioned why parents need to record their children's conversations. "Is that part of good parenting, part of a healthy family?" he asked. "Is it not a sign perhaps that the parent-child relationship is irretrievably broken some way?"

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Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate (SB 5081). Her bill does not call for recording conversations or providing evidence but simply says it would not be illegal for a parent or legal guardian to monitor his or her child's telephone conversations. That measure had a public hearing last month.

"I believe the loophole needs to be closed to protect the right of parents to parent," she said. "The last thing you want is your own child complaining that you're breaking the law. They shouldn't have that kind of leverage over parents' ability to parent."

Jennifer Shaw of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington endorsed Roach's bill but not the House bill because it is too far-reaching.

"We have never advocated for any parent to be criminally prosecuted because of this," Shaw said. The House bill would put "children and parents in an adversarial position," she added.

Tom McBride of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys told the House committee that prosecutors support the bill. He said parents could use the evidence they gain to get a restraining order against someone harassing their child or inappropriately contacting the child.


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