On June 2, 2007, 18-year-old Kelsey Smith was abducted in broad daylight from an Overland Park department store and murdered. The abduction was captured on the store’s security camera leaving little doubt of the emergency nature of the circumstances. Four days after she disappeared, authorities were able to locate Kelsey’s body after her wireless provider released the “ping” or “call location” information from her cell phone.
She might have been found earlier, but the cell phone company employees didn’t have the legal authority to turn over the information.
In Kansas and the 21 states that have since passed Kelsey Smith Acts, legislators reasoned that providing this information as fast as possible is critical to ensure law enforcement officials can rescue victims in imminent danger of death or serious physical harm.
Efforts to make this a federal law have failed, but this week the U.S. House of Representatives heard from Kelsey Smith's parents during a subcommittee hearing on the Kelsey Smith Act. U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) introduced the Senate version.
Roberts called the Kelsey Smith Act “commonsense legislation that makes it easier for law enforcement to find our children if the nightmare of abduction ever becomes a reality.” This law also needs to protect citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, and Roberts claims it does so.
The Kansas version of the law is pretty straight-forward. In a nutshell: “Upon request of a law enforcement agency, a wireless telecommunications carrier shall provide call location information concerning the telecommunications device of the user to the requesting law enforcement agency in order to respond to a call for emergency services or in an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or serious physical harm.”
Police don’t have to get a court order to quickly access cell phone location information, or “ping” information, when a person is abducted and his or her life is threatened. They can’t, however, read the phone’s messages.
Senator Roberts has introduced the Kelsey Smith Act in the Senate in the previous Congresses. Representative Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), the lead sponsor in the House, reintroduced the bill in the House for the 114th Congress.
“What happened to Kelsey Smith was an absolute tragedy,” Rep. Yoder said. “This bill, named in her memory, will give law enforcement officials more effective tools to try and prevent horrible crimes like this from happening again. It provides a narrow emergency exception that preserves the privacy of cell phone users, but removes red tape so police can act quickly in an emergency. It strikes the right balance, which is why we’ve seen more than 20 states pass similar legislation. Senator Roberts deserves enormous credit for his work on this issue in the Senate, and I look forward to moving our bill in the House and getting this signed into law.”
It is appropriate for citizens to make sure “cutting red tape” doesn’t amount to relinquishing civil rights, as they have with certain parts of the Patriot Act. But if the Kelsey Smith Act truly does strike a balance as claimed, it is time for it to become law.