Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb today unveiled an anticrime package that would draft the National Guard into the state's war against drug traffickers, broaden the use of police wiretaps and relax a controversial rule forbidding the use of illegally obtained evidence.
The 11 proposals, Robb and other officials said, are primarily directed against a statewide surge in drug-related crimes caused in part by the growing presence of Florida and South American-based smugglers in Virginia's coastal waterways.
The proposals quickly ran into opposition from some legislators and civil liberties groups who charged that some of the proposals would have little impact on crime, but would chip away at the constitutional rights of citizens.
"It's strictly a political move," said Murray Janus, a Richmond attorney and the past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It's the type of thing the electorate likes to hear, but it's not the answer to cutting down on our crime statistics."
The package was seen by some as a renewed effort by the Democratic governor to carve out a "law and order" niche for his administration. Robb, who campaigned on a tough anticrime platform two years ago, put forward a similar package before the legislature in January, only to run into the same civil liberties objections.
Those concerns are unwarranted, Robb told reporters today, because "there has to be a balance" between the rights of the accused and the rights of society. In the case of his proposal to allow some improperly obtained evidence to be used in trials, Robb said: "We're not talking about a deliberate attempt to circumvent individual rights."
The most dramatic element in the package is an executive order, now being drafted, that will direct the Virginia National Guard to engage in intelligence-gathering operations as part of its normal surveillance and radar tracking flight missions. Currently, Air and Army Guardsmen pilots and crew chiefs fly some 40 helicopters and 24 fixed-wing airplanes on such training flights, which also include practice bombing and strafing missions over North Carolina.
The pilots and crew chiefs -- about 150 in number -- will be trained to lookout for marijuana crop fields and to report any evidence to the state police.
In addition, Robb proposed:
* Modifying of the so-called "exclusionary rule" which, under Supreme Court rulings, forbids the use during criminal trials of evidence obtained by police officers during constitutionally improper search and seizures. The proposal, identical to one rejected by the legislature this year, would allow the use of such evidence in state courts if police acted in a "reasonable manner."
* Widening the use of state police wiretaps. Currently, wiretaps in Virginia -- there were 13 last year -- are only authorized for investigations involving drugs, public corruption and certain violent crimes. Robb's proposal would allow the use of wiretap evidence relating to any felonies, even if unrelated to the original purpose of the investigation.
* Creating a special statewide grand jury to investigate and indict drug traffickers. The new "multi-jurisdiction" grand jury, to be appointed by the state Supreme Court upon application by any two Commonwealth's attorneys, would bolster law enforcement efforts in the increasing number of drug cases that cross county lines, according to Robb aides.
Other proposals would tighten the state's death penalty and child pornography laws, stiffen penalties on doctors who knowingly prescribe illegal drugs, give prosecutors the right to appeal adverse pre-trial rulings, and impose hefty penalties on the use of "armor-piercing" bullets in violent crimes.
Most of the criticism, however, focused on the exclusionary rule -- a longstanding issue among legal scholars which the Supreme Court last month agreed to review in an upcoming case. An 18-page summary handed out by Robb and Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles today echoes the complaints of conservative critics, stating that the rule "punishes society" and "is used only to benefit the guilty."
If the rule were modified, "the police would go crazy," said state Del. Bernard Cohen (D-Alexandria), a lawyer. "We'll get back to breaking down doors and all sorts of searches of innocent people."
Other proposals, such as the broadening of wiretap evidence and the statewide grand jury, also drew fire. "I'm getting a little bit concerned about the right to privacy," said House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry). "You know damn well if the police hear it evidence of felonies during wiretaps they're going to use it. But for us to authorize it, I think citizens are going to get a little bit upset."
Philpott, noting the time-consuming budget problems the legislature will have to handle during the upcoming session, predicted that whole parts of Robb's package will never see the light of day. "It's a big menu to be putting on a short-session," he said. "It's going to be almost impossible to get all that stuff through."