By John Celock
A congressional hearing is planned next month on legislation that would require cell phone companies to turn over location information about a phone to law enforcement in emergency situations.
The legislation – reintroduced this month by U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) – is similar to laws adopted in 22 states to require the location information to be turned over in emergency situations. The bill – named the Kelsey Smith Act – was inspired by the case of Kelsey Smith, an 18-year-old Overland Park, Kan. resident, who was abducted and killed in 2007, with Verizon Wireless waiting four days to give law enforcement the location of her cell phone. Law enforcement found Smith’s body 45 minutes after being given the location.
“The tragic story of Kelsey Smith’s abduction and murder brought to light a void in state and federal laws that does not require telecommunications providers to comply with the request to find a missing person in the case of an emergency,” Yoder told The Celock Report. “In the Kelsey Smith matter, the cell phone company had call location information of Kelsey’s phone which would have immediately led them to her whereabouts but they did not turn over the information in a timely fashion. As soon as they did the search and rescue team was able to find her quickly. It highlighted a void in federal and state law that could result in tragedy and lost lives.”
The Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is slated to hold a hearing on the legislation next month. The Energy and Commerce Committee previously advanced the legislation in 2014, but it did not receive a vote on the House floor.
Yoder has been working with other members of Congress and law enforcement since 2014 to tackle several issues that arose during the last attempt to get the bill passed, including committee amendments that would have added additional paperwork for law enforcement that does not exist in the 22 state versions of the law.
“It put law enforcement through greater steps than what was going on at the state level,” Yoder said. “The bill now looks much more like the state laws that have passed.”
Yoder said that he has met with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and that Upton supports getting a “good bill” out of the committee and to the full House. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
This is the third time the federal version of the Kelsey Smith Act has been introduced in Congress, with the first coming from U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) in 2011-2012. The bill has been pushed at the state and federal level by Smith’s parents; Kansas state Sen. Greg Smith (R-Overland Park) and Missey Smith, since her death.
Smith was abducted from a Target parking lot in Overland Park on June 2, 2007 after she had purchased an anniversary gift for her boyfriend. Surveillance video from the Target lot showed Smith being pushed into her car and the car was recovered several hours later from a nearby Macy’s parking lot. Requests for the location of the pings from Smith’s cell phone from Verizon Wireless took four days for Verizon Wireless to turn over to law enforcement. Smith’s body was found in a wooded area of Grandview, Mo. 45 minutes after the information was turned over.
Edwin Roy “Jack” Hall has been convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Smith and is serving life in prison. Surveillance footage showed Hall following Smith around inside the Target prior to abducting her.
Greg Smith told The Celock Report that the legislation is needed in order to provide tools to law enforcement to compel the telecommunications companies to turn over the information quickly in emergency situations.
“In a kidnapping case you have three to six hours, when someone could be killed,” he said. “It behooves law enforcement to act quickly on these types of things.”
Greg Smith noted that the bill – both at the state and local levels is “narrowly defined” to focus on the location of the cell phone and not to turn over emails, texts, or other data in the phone to law enforcement. While the law is in place in 22 states – with an effort to pass it in the remaining 28 – a federal version is needed to address questions over telecommunications being regulated by the federal government and the states and cases in which a kidnapping victim is transported across state lines to a state that does not have the law in place. Smith also said the federal version would allow federal law enforcement to make the requests.
The first state level Kelsey Smith Act was passed in 2009 in Kansas with the 22nd occurring this month in Indiana. Greg Smith said the law has worked at the state level.
“We’ve gotten several testimonials from states and agencies that used the bill,” he said. “It has been credited with saving people’s lives.”
Greg Smith said that in one case, law enforcement was able to rescue a kidnapping victim in the woods. In a recent case in Lenexa, Ks., Smith said a couple got out of their car and a man jumped in and stole the car while the couple’s five-month-old child was in the backseat. He said that since the couple had left a cell phone in the vehicle, police were able to quickly locate the car and rescue the child within half an hour.
“We know it works,” he said.
Both Greg and Missey Smith will be testifying at the congressional hearing.
Yoder said that he has worked with telecommunications companies and that they have been supportive of the legislation. He said that he hopes that cell phone companies are following the practices in the law but that the bill will codify the practice federally.
Greg Smith said that he believes the bill should be an easy decision for federal lawmakers.
“It seems like a no brainer, you shouldn’t need legislation to do this,” he said. “In Kelsey’s case it happened over a weekend, the person who had to make the decision was a customer service representative at 2 a.m. Nothing against the customer service rep, but they are not trained on that. It took four days in Kelsey’s case. When law enforcement got the information, they located her body in 45 minutes.”