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Legislature to consider broadening police authority
By Marissa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
December 17, 2001
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Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has passed several laws and changed others to widen the government's authority to investigate people deemed potential terrorists. From airline security, wiretapping, and military tribunals, the changes are happening fast, but not without concern from civil libertarians. While many of these changes are at the federal level, some state lawmakers say they'll propose related legislation. State anti-terrorism measures could include broadening wiretapping authority and limiting public access to information.

Julie Wallace confronts the issue of public access to information every day as head librarian for the federal library depository in Minneapolis.

She says since the attacks, over a dozen federal agencies removed information from their Web sites. She and other depository librarians were also ordered to destroy data about the country's public waterways.

"One would hope that Sept. 11 events are not used as excuses for more restrictions on information. Information about where things are and how they work, is often important for the citizens to know also, and the protection of the citizens ought to be done by protecting those facilities, whatever they are, rather than removing information about them from everyone," Wallace says.

The state has also placed new limits on access to government information. Rep. Rich Stanek, R-Maple Grove, plans to propose some anti-terror initiatives, saying many of those restrictions are "reasonable."

Stanek cites a recent change at the state's Division of Emergency Management. State law requires the agency to provide the public with information on hazardous materials. After Sept. 11, that data was removed from the department's Web site.

"It doesn't make much sense that if I'm a terrorist sitting at my computer, that I can punch up the different chemicals I need to make a homemade bomb. We're saying, 'maybe the information should be still public, but make it a little more difficult to get,'" says Stanek.

Stanek chairs the House Judiciary Finance Committee. He says his proposals will include restrictions on the state's open meeting laws, and exempting police investigations of suspected terrorist activity from public reporting requirements, and loosening wiretap restrictions. It's all part of what he's calling a "domestic terrorism preparedness package."

"These are extraordinary times, and with extraordinary times come extraordinary measures," he says. "For the last several years, the pendulum has swung greatly in favor of open meeting laws, access by the public, freedom of information, and I think that's good to an extent, but then you have Sept. 11troll around, and now you see the pendulum swinging the other way."

Stanek's other anti-terrrorism proposals include creating and defining the crime of "terrorism." Ventura administration proposals will also likely be part of the package. They include improving background checks on truck drivers hauling hazardous materials, and broadening state powers to quarantine people and property to control infectious disease outbreaks.

Since the bills have not yet been introduced, it's not clear how much debate the state anti-terror measures will create among lawmakers.

Sen. Myron Orfield, DFL-Minneapolis, says generally speaking, any anti-terrorism measures must reach a reasonable standard and not sweep too broadly.

"We certainly have to do everything that we can to make sure that terrorists are prosecuted, that they are put in jail, that they are quickly acted upon, that information is available and so forth, and the public is protected. But I think, in fashioning those remedies we should give some consideration to our constitutional protections. I'm afraid that we're very little thinking about the basic nature of constitutional protections that were created at the founding, and that they're very important," Orfield says.

Orfield says he doesn't predict much opposition to passing and funding the anti-terrorism proposals.