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Originally published December 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 13, 2004 at 1:55 PM

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Eavesdropping against law even for parent, court says

In a case of snooping parents vs. their children, a mother's eavesdropping on a telephone conversation between the woman's daughter and her daughter's boyfriend violated the children's...

Seattle Times staff reporter

In a case of snooping parents vs. their children, a mother's eavesdropping on a telephone conversation between the woman's daughter and her daughter's boyfriend violated the children's privacy, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The high court unanimously reversed a 2000 robbery conviction against Oliver Christensen, 22, of Friday Harbor, in a case based in part on the testimony of the mother and what she heard in that telephone conversation.

"The court said it is against the law to intercept or snoop on anybody's private conversation and that even a child has privacy rights," said Christensen's attorney, Michael Tario. "And further, the law says it is a crime for someone to do that, and that whatever is heard cannot be mentioned in court."

The mother, Carmen Dixon, was incredulous.

"I just believe you have the right to know what your kids are doing and who they're doing it with," said Dixon, 47, of Friday Harbor. "We were having a hard time with her as a teenager. She was sort of out of control."

Monitoring her daughter's phone calls was "the way I could keep track of what she was up to," Dixon said.

San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord said the court's position weakens the ability of parents to monitor their children's actions.

"I tell parents that they need to be involved in their children's lives, and I'm concerned that this will mean parents can't always do the right thing," Gaylord said. "I'm concerned that a 14-year-old's right to privacy now trumps the parent's right to be a parent."

Because Christensen has already served the nine-month jail term to which he was sentenced, Gaylord said his office has not decided whether to seek a new trial.

According to court documents, Christensen telephoned his girlfriend, Lacey Dixon, then 14, and talked about being a suspect in a purse snatching in October 2000.

To take the call, the girl went to her room and shut the door.

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Her mother activated a speakerphone, listened to the conversation and took notes, according to court documents. Dixon said yesterday she overheard her daughter question Christensen about his involvement in the purse snatching. Though Christensen didn't admit to the crime, he told Dixon's daughter "they'll never find it" because he hid it "across a ditch in some stick bushes," Dixon said.

"I'm shocked and I'm disappointed," Dixon said of the court's ruling, "because my testimony is what convicted" Christensen.

Douglas Klunder, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the opinion reinforces the state's reputation as a strong guardian of personal privacy.

Klunder said the primary issue before the high court was whether the use of an extension or speaker phone was considered eavesdropping. A secondary issue was whether there was an exception in the case of parents and their children.

Attorneys for the state argued that minors should have a reduced expectation of privacy because parents have an absolute right to monitor phone calls coming into the family home. The attorneys cited provisions in federal wiretap law which are less restrictive than Washington's law and allow parents to tape and listen to their children's conversations.

"The Washington act, with its all-party consent requirement, contains no such parental exception and no Washington court has ever implied such an exception. We decline to do so now," wrote Justice Tom Chambers in the court's opinion.

Tario said his client is now a crab fisherman in Alaska.

Carmen Dixon's daughter, now 18, graduated from high school and is attending a massage-therapy school in Everett, her mother said. Their relationship now "is great," Dixon said.

Seattle Times reporter Sara Jean Green and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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