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Bill allowing e-mail monitoring hits snag

In California, a state body says a measure giving law enforcement the power to monitor the e-mail and phone calls of suspected criminals runs afoul of federal laws.

A bill that would give California law-enforcement officials unprecedented power to monitor the e-mail and phone conversations of suspected criminals has hit a roadblock.

A state body that provides legal opinions on pending bills has determined that such wide-ranging surveillance would run afoul of federal laws.

A provision of the bill, which is sponsored by state Assemblyman Carl Washington and backed by Gov. Gray Davis, proposes giving law enforcement the ability to use "roving" wiretaps on any phone a suspected criminal may potentially use.

But the Legislative Counsel of California said state law-enforcement officials are not authorized under federal law to use roving wiretaps, even though federal law-enforcement officials may do so. State lawmakers will probably revise the bill to comply with federal law.

California's efforts to expand the surveillance powers of its law-enforcement agencies come as federal lawmakers try to make it easier for law enforcement to snoop on people's electronic habits in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In October, President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act, which expands law enforcement's ability to monitor electronic communications, in an effort to thwart terrorism.

But civil libertarians have protested both that act and the California bill, saying the two could violate the privacy and rights of citizens who are not under investigation, and allow abuses to go unchecked.