Only a cellphone’s owner can request the location of their cellphone, even if that person may have been kidnapped or otherwise at risk of harm. A court order, which can take time, is the only other means law enforcement has of being guaranteed location information.
In Kansas and 23 other states, law enforcement can compel phone companies to release quickly location information if the owner is determined to be "at risk of death or serious physical harm." A group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Ron Estes, both Kansas Republicans, have introduced the legislation on a federal level with support from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
The legislation would offer an important tool for law enforcement in cases where seconds count, but the benefits of the law must be weighed with privacy concerns, and some changes may be needed before the legislation becomes law.
The legislation is part of a decade-long lobbying effort by the parents of Kelsey Smith, an 18-year-old who was abducted and murdered in 2007. Kelsey was seen leaving a store in Overland Park immediately before her disappearance. Her family and law enforcement unsuccessfully requested her cellphone location information for four days. Kelsey’s body was found 45 minutes after the cellphone provider acquiesced and released the geographic coordinates to law enforcement.
In states where the legislation has passed, dispatchers credit it with saving lives, particularly in cases involving suicide and endangered children. In states where similar legislation hasn't passed, cellphone providers can decide whether to comply with a request for location information or not. The legislation has failed to progress on the federal level, leaving jurisdictions operating with inconsistent and confusing standards that a federal law would clarify.
In a letter to Congress this week, Schmidt and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge urged federal passage of the Kelsey Smith Act "to give law enforcement officers the tools they need to keep our communities safe in the 21st Century."
"We can attest to its critical importance in saving lives during abductions and other emergency situations," they wrote.
We are inclined to support legislation that saves lives and is already working in 24 states, but any law that releases private information to law enforcement should be carefully scrutinized. The legislation doesn't release the content of messages or communications, but location information, even by itself, should be protected. Past opponents have identified the definition of “emergency” in the legislation as too broad and needing to be more specific. They also have suggested post-order judicial review and consequences for any use of the legislation later found to be unreasonable. These measures would offer privacy protection without sacrificing the speed that makes the law life-saving, and are worth serious consideration.
Congress should pass the Kelsey Smith Act, in some form, as a way to save lives when moments matter.