In a particularly surprising and searing defeat, House lawmakers voted down a bill Monday night that would have compelled cell phone companies to release the location information of phones in emergency situations.
Named after an 18-year-old woman who was abducted from a Target parking lot in 2007 and found days later murdered, the "Kelsey Smith Act" would allow law enforcement agencies to work with telecommunications companies to locate people in situations similar to Kelsey's.
A bill's defeat on the House floor is a rare and embarrassing situation for House leadership. But this measure's defeat was made even more embarrassing and emotional because Smith's family was in the House gallery as lawmakers voted down the legislation, 229-158. (The bill was considered "under suspension of the rules," meaning the legislation was given expedited consideration requiring a two-thirds majority for passage.)
Fifty-three Democrats and 176 Republicans voted for the bill, and 108 Democrats and 50 Republicans voted against it.
Outside groups made a late lobbying campaign against the measure Monday amid concerns that law enforcement agencies could use an overly broad definition of the word "emergency" to subvert courts.
"The proposed legislation creates an unprecedented loophole to our Fourth Amendment right to privacy," the libertarian think tank R Street wrote in a post on Monday.
The group added that the goal of the bill was laudable, but said "granting law enforcement extraordinary abilities to obtain cell data without receiving a probable-cause warrant from a judge is yet another expansion of government surveillance power."
While 22 states have adopted similar legislation, House lawmakers seemed to have some reservations about the bill. The measure would have allowed police to decide what constituted an emergency, and groups like R Street and the ACLU have expressed concern over those provisions. As Radley Balko has written, laws "named after crimes and dead people" can be a bad idea since their provisions often have unforeseen complications, and they're politically difficult to oppose.
In 2014, the ACLU wrote a letter to Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) saying the current system works, citing almost 70,000 times Verizon and AT&T supplied law enforcement with location information in 2013. They say cell phone companies already have the ability to share information in these sorts of life-or-death situations.
But Kelsey's family has pointed out previously that it took nearly four days for her cell phone provider to turn over location information. Once they did turn it over, it took roughly 45 minutes to find Kelsey dead.