SPRINGFIELD — While one attempt to pass an exception to the state's eavesdropping law encountered significant resistance in the Illinois General Assembly this year, a separate exemption found significantly stronger support.
A bill advancing through the legislature seeks to let police officers record and monitor certain conversations during which they believe a drug offense may occur.
State Sen. William R. Haine, D-Alton, a sponsor of the legislation, — which allows the wiretaps to be approved by a state's attorney, not by a judge — contends House Bill 4081 creates a narrow exception allowing police to collect evidence with limited admissibility in court.
The measure would help prevent drug investigations from getting hampered by judicial inaction on wiretap requests, supporters said.
"The world of illicit drugs moves very quickly," said Terry Lemming, an Illinois State Police commander, at a Senate Criminal Law Committee hearing last week. "It's very difficult to find a judge in the middle of the night."
The eavesdropping exception that received the most attention this year — a measure allowing citizens to record audio of police officers in public — failed to clear the House. But this exemption sailed through that chamber in March and could be called for a vote in the Senate this week.
During a hearing, though, some senators raised questions about the bill removing judges from the wiretap-approval process.
State Sen. Kwame Y. Raoul, D-Chicago, said lawmakers worried about privacy issues when allowing citizens to record police on their cellphones, but seem to show little interest in guarding against hasty wiretaps.
"It's ironic that we want to afford the protection to law enforcement officers from eavesdropping," he said, "yet we don't have that sensitivity the other way around."
If adopted, the bill would allow a state's attorney to approve a wiretap for a conversation involving an officer or confidential informant, when police believe the other party in the conversation could soon commit a drug offense.
The recording could only be used at a trial for a drug charge or other felonies occurring as a result of the conversation, such as the police officer or informant getting injured or killed.
Lemming and other supporters said monitoring such conversations would help protect officers, allowing for police to step in if the interaction becomes dangerous.
State Sen. John Millner, R-Schaumburg, said police wanted such an exception for 15 years and the measure would not infringe on the rights of most citizens.
"No one in this room, unless you're selling drugs, would be affected," said Millner, a former Elmhurst police chief. "And our constituents, unless they're selling drugs, wouldn't be affected."
State Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, argued that if judicial responsiveness remains the biggest barrier to police, then any reform should aim to make judges more available to requests.
"I'm struggling with taking away this check that would exist," Kotowski said, "where you'd go to a judge to approve being able to have this eavesdropping, this wiretap."
The bill does incorporate judges into the process eventually, but only when determining whether evidence gained during the wiretap can be admitted at trial.
Raoul said that encourages police to use the wiretap to acquire information they couldn't get otherwise, not to gain evidence for use in court.
State Sen. Michael J. Noland, D-Elgin, the committee's chairman, expressed concern that the bill uses "reasonable cause" as the standard for wiretap approval.
"This legislation does not base that determination of admissibility on probable cause," Noland said. "This is a problem that is basically upending these Fourth Amendment protections that we've had up until now."