updated 3/3/2004 6:12:52 AM ET 2004-03-03T11:12:52

Germany's highest court on Wednesday demanded changes to a six-year-old law that allows authorities to eavesdrop on conversations in private homes, ruling that parts of the measure are unconstitutional.

While law enforcement officials and the government argue that the law helps fight organized crime and terrorism, opponents told the Federal Constitutional Court last year that it violates constitutional privacy guarantees and has not allowed authorities to crack any major cases.

Passed under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the law was highly controversial because of the legacy of the Nazi police state and decades of snooping by the Stasi, the secret police in communist East Germany.

Announcing its decision Wednesday, the court ruled that eavesdropping in private homes could only be ordered where there is a suspicion of a serious offense that could carry a prison sentence of more than five years.

In addition, it said, eavesdropping operations must be broken off when people under surveillance are speaking in their homes to close relatives, doctors, priests or defense lawyers who are not themselves suspects.

Three members of the small opposition Free Democratic Party, including two former ministers, led the court challenge.

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