Eavesdropping on your kids is illegal, and that makes many parents willing lawbreakers. Local moms and dads are outraged by the state Supreme Court's recent reversal of a robbery...

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Eavesdropping on your kids is illegal, and that makes many parents willing lawbreakers.

Local moms and dads are outraged by the state Supreme Court’s recent reversal of a robbery conviction that was based on testimony by a mother who listened via speakerphone to her daughter’s conversation. Dozens expressed their anger in e-mails to The Times.

“Tell me it’s illegal to spy on my child and you will see me breaking the law,” said Desiree Moore, a Seattle mom of a 23- and a 24-year-old. “I was in on everything. They didn’t always know about it; they just thought I had ESP.”

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What the law says

The state’s privacy act, enacted in 1967, makes it unlawful for anyone to intercept or record any private communication transmitted by any electronic device without first getting all participants’ consent.

As the state Supreme Court recently noted, the law contains no parental exception. Exemptions include calls of an emergency nature, such as reporting of a fire; threats of extortion, blackmail or bodily harm; and obscene phone calls.

Washington is one of only 11 states requiring the consent of all parties.

Last week’s decision is drawing national attention (Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” warned that eavesdropping on your child’s conversation “could land you behind bars”) and sparked readers’ calls for the ouster of state Supreme Court members.

State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said she plans to introduce legislation to add a parental exception to the state’s privacy laws so parents can monitor children’s calls without their permission.

“Parents not only have the right to parent — they have the responsibility to parent,” Roach said in a news release.

While it is a misdemeanor — punishable with a year in jail — to intercept a private phone call, it’s unlikely police would arrest parents for doing so, and still less likely a prosecuting attorney would charge them, local officials say.

Theoretically, a teen could call police to investigate a parent for eavesdropping, “but we’ve got lots of real serious police work that needs to be done,” said King County sheriff’s Sgt. John Urquhart. “Most deputies called to this type of situation would take a subjective view on it, especially if they were a parent of teenagers. We know how tough it is.”

And as the parent of two teenage girls, would he eavesdrop? “If I thought it would make me be a better parent, or to keep them safe, damn right I would.”

The hot-button issue of parental rights is making people miss the fact “the Supreme Court didn’t create new law here,” said Michael Tario, defense attorney in the case. “They’re getting a bad rap for just applying a law the Legislature created in 1967.”

How law applied in recent court decision

Last Thursday, the state Supreme Court reversed the robbery conviction of Oliver Christensen because it was based on testimony by his girlfriend’s mother, who had listened to their conversation via speakerphone. Police had told the mother, Carmen Dixon, that Christensen was a suspect in the 2000 purse-snatching case. In the phone conversation, Christensen didn’t admit guilt but told his girlfriend, then 14, that “they’ll never find it.” The court ruled that using an extension or speakerphone to hear a private conversation is illegal eavesdropping, and that the law does not exclude parents.

Any information obtained in violation of the privacy act is inadmissible in any civil or criminal case unless the crime would jeopardize national security.

The ACLU of Washington, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case supporting privacy rights, “does not believe parents should be prosecuted for listening to their child’s conversation,” spokesman Doug Honig said. “It’s never happened, and if it does, we want to hear about it.”

If parents are really worried about breaking the law, they could inform teens they plan to occasionally monitor phone calls, thus removing an assumption of privacy, Tario said. However, there’s no way to warn incoming callers “unless they put a stupid little recording on the kid’s phone” such as companies sometimes use, he said.

Parents can legally check e-mails and instant messages because the court already had determined people can’t expect privacy when communication goes through the Internet, Tario said. And they can report a Columbinelike threat because the law exempts threats of bodily harm.

For Michael DeShazo, a Bellevue parent of a 2- and a 4-year-old, “the question is not whether parents are invading their child’s privacy — as parents, we do that all the time: signing grade reports, discussing school performance with teachers, asking our kids how they feel, finding the occasional odd object in the laundry. No, the question is: Who is responsible for my child?

“According to law, if my child breaks something, I’m responsible. If my child hurts someone, both he and I are responsible. If I have a child who drives my car and has an accident, I’m responsible. So the question lies in responsibility, not privacy.”

Several parents credit listening to phone conversations, reading diaries and checking bedrooms with detecting such dangers as drug use and suicide.

Lauren Basse, 20, a Redmond resident who moved to San Diego last month to attend school, says her parents kept track of what she was up to.

“I can say from experience that some of my friends would not be living today if it weren’t for ‘illegal’ eavesdropping by their parents,” she wrote in an e-mail. “At the time, they could not have been more outraged. But in hindsight, they could not be more grateful.”

Still, parents need to balance a teen’s developmental need for privacy and autonomy with the desire to keep kids safe, said Peter Sheras, author of “I Can’t Believe You Went Through My Stuff!: How to Give Your Teens the Privacy They Crave and the Guidance They Need.”

“To parents, it’s a matter of protection,” said Sheras, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. “To teens, it’s a violation and betrayal.”

Start from a position of trust “until they prove otherwise,” Sheras said, adding that parents have more influence in a cooperative relationship based on respect.

Intrusion is warranted “if parents feel the child’s in real, palpable danger,” he said. “But parents need to be careful not to smother kids too much so they bite back.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or sdunnewind@seattletimes.com