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Ohio lawmakers hot for snooping power

Tom Jackson • Jun 20, 2013 at 11:53 AM

A bill that would make it easier for police to obtain cell phone locations zipped through the Senate on a 32-1 vote in April, but it has now slowed down in the Ohio House.

The Ohio House Transportation, Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee was poised to pass the bill Tuesday, sending it to the House floor for a vote.

But the chairman, Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, agreed to delay action until at least another week. 

His decision came after an official from the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, Maurice Thompson, testified that it would allow police to obtain cell phone records without a warrant, even in non-emergency situations.

"We were just about ready to vote this bill out," Damschroder said. "This was the first time these guys showed up." 

Damschroder said he agreed to delay action to let members give the measure a closer look.

"I wanted to give the members on the committee and everybody a chance to look at the information this gentleman produced to see if it had any merit," Damschroder said.

Senate Bill 5, authored by state senators Edna Brown, a Toledo Democrat, and Gayle Manning, a North Ridgeville Republican, says cell phone providers will immediately provide the location of a cell phone customer if police are responding to the customer's emergency call, or if the police believe there is "imminent danger" of death or serious injury if the information isn't supplied right away.

The bill also says cell phone providers can set up a system to voluntarily give up the information, and can't be sued if they act in good faith with the law.

Thompson, director of the 1851 Center, says the non-emergency provisions — allowing for voluntary disclosure of the information — mean cell phone companies can make money selling cell phone information to police, even when no crime is alleged.

"The bill authorizes wireless service providers to break their voluntarily agreed-to contracts with Ohio customers, to whom they've promised privacy, and strips Ohioans of their right to enforce these contracts, or sue for damages," Thompson said in a release from the 1851 Center.

In the Senate's 32-1 vote, the only "No" was cast by state Sen. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood.

Skindell said Wednesday that national controversy over the fact that the National Security Agency apparently collects phone records for everyone in America has focused attention on the issue of privacy versus safety.

"We cannot just give up on our liberty to obtain absolute security," said Skindell, who ran for the Ohio Supreme Court in 2012 but lost to incumbent Terrence O'Donnell.

Skindell said the normal way to handle laws such as Senate Bill 5 is to have a general rule and then allow for exceptions.

Fixing the bill would mean requiring a warrant to obtain cell phone records, but allowing police an exception in a genuine emergency. After police invoke the exception, a court should review the matter and make sure the law was followed, Skindell said.

"They do that in other warrant situations," Skindell said.

Thompson said the 1851 Center also believes the bill should be amended to require police to obtain warrants to obtain cell phone information, with an exception for emergencies.

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