IN AN ATTEMPT to improve Virginia's anticrime efforts, Gov. Robb has come up with a collection of proposals for the legislature to consider when it convenes next month. Many of his ideas met strong opposition in the General Assembly this year -- and will again. The proposals involve the extent to which certain law enforcement practices should be allowed before they infringe on civil liberties. While all of Mr. Robb's proposals deserve consideration, the legislature should proceed with great caution for a number of reasons.
First, a practical consideration: the Assembly session that begins in two weeks is supposed to be an odd-year short session -- even though the calendar already is filling fast with other important legislative business, including time-consuming financial questions that must not be neglected. The governor is suggesting broader uses of wiretaps, a relaxation of prohibitions on the uses of illegally obtained evidence and other significant revisions that should not be disposed of in short order.
These are the substantive changes Gov. Robb is proposing:
1) Modifying the so-called "exclusionary rule" that forbids the use in criminal trials of evidence obtained by police officers during constitutionally improper searches and seizures. The governor's proposal would allow the use of such evidence in state courts if police acted in a "reasonable manner." This should be tabled this year. The U.S. Supreme Court will be addressing the issue in the current term. It would be a bad idea and, for all anyone knows now, fruitless for the state to proceed without knowledge of what the Supreme Court may conclude.
There is considerable sentiment for some loosening of the rule when it comes to serious crimes, if this were accompanied by provisions for adequate judicial oversight. But Congress has spent years on this complex issue; for the Virginia legislature to spend only a few weeks on it, after rejecting this proposal earlier this year, would be foolish.
2) Widening police use of wiretaps, which in Virginia now are authorized only for investigations involving drugs, public corruption and certain violent crimes. (There were 13 instances last year). The governor's proposal would allow wiretap evidence relating to any felonies, even if unrelated to the original purpose of the investigation. This is far too broad -- an invitation for "fishing trips" and violations of privacy.
3) Creating a statewide grand jury to investigate and indict drug traffickers, when sought by any two Commonwealth's attorneys. This is not a bad idea; as it stands, the state does not do that effective a job on crimes that cross state boundaries.
4) Using the National Guard for surveillance and radar tracking of marijuana fields during routine missions. This the governor may do by executive order. Why not?
Other proposals are less sweeping and in most cases -- if accompanied by protections -- would be all right. They include tightening laws against child pornography and against doctors who knowingly proscribe illegal drugs; giving prosecutors the right to appeal adverse pretrial rulings, and imposing heavy penalties on the use of "armor-piercing" bullets in violent crimes.
Clearly Gov. Robb and the legislative leaders -- whose reactions to some of these proposals have been something less than enthusiastic -- will have to cooperate if anything is to be accomplished. For that to happen, Mr. Robb will have to do better at touching bases than he has done so far.