ST. PAUL, Minn. - Unmanned spy planes and smart phones with G-P-S tracking were not part of the landscape when Minnesota's criminal surveillance laws were written, and now state lawmakers are looking for ways to balance law enforcement's needs with the constitutional rights of citizens.
The House Public Safety Committee Tuesday passed several bills that would require investigators to get search warrants in order to target citizens with surveillance drones, or to mine their cell phone data for leads.
"When they wrote that law the better part of two decades ago, they didn't imagine that 90 percent of us would be carrying a device like this in their pocket, that would tell government where they're located," Rep. Joe Atkins, an Inver Grove Heights Democrat, told the panel, as he held a smart phone.
Atkins' bill, enhancing due process for acquiring location information from cell phone data, was approved by the committee and will likely be combined with a proposal by Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, also dealing with smart phone data.
Another Lesch measurewould require search warrants before police deploy a drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, for surveillance. One exception would be for emergencies, but in those cases the courts would have to be notified as soon as possible after the fact.
Republican Brian Johnson has offered a similar bill that would restrict the use of drones to emergencies, counter-terrorism actions and probes authorized by search warrants. His drone bill and Lesch's will be folding into one piece of legislation before getting a final okay by the committee.
Catching up with technology
Many of the laws were tailored to tracking devices that police place on vehicles, mobile trackers that emit radio signals. Mobile phone users collect and transmit vast quantities of personal data, and law enforcement can also capture data from cell tower activity logs that allow location tracking.
"The Fourth Amendment requires a search warrant from a judge, from a judicial officer, before you go search a person's papers in their houses, before you tap their phones," Chuck Samuelson of the ACLU of Minnesota told reporters.
"And the search warrant is a really good check and balance, and that's what we're asking for in the case of the drones."
Republicans on the committee said they opposed anything that would hinder legitimate investigations, and would rather see the bills shelved until they gain law enforcement support.
"We just don't like the high bar of a search warrant, with the portability of evidence and the way the criminals can get out of Dodge," Rep. Tony Cornish, a Vernon Center Republican, told reporters.
"We would like to be able to react more quickly and don't want our hands tied."
Cornish, a former DNR conservation officer and retired police chief, said the drone bills were looking too far into the future at a problem that hasn't become reality yet.
Cornish took issue with another bill offered by Rep. Lesch, that would limit drone ownership to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, or BCA. That proposal would allow local agencies to borrow drones from the BCA, after explaining the intended use and securing search warrants.
Cornish said he's heard from several county sheriffs who are against that idea, and suggested that a statewide association also opposed it.
That led to a back and forth between Lesch and Cornish over the fact that Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek didn't testify at an informational hearing Lesch held in January.
"This committee cannot make decisions based on rumor and innuendo and hearsay," Rep. Lesch told Cornish.
Stanek instead held a briefing for a group of lawmakers at the sheriff's office, but Lesch said that's not the same thing answering questions in a public committee meeting.
"That's why we have an open committee hearing process because government can't be making secret decisions and holding secret information, and secret technology."
When the committee resumed action four hours later Stanek was on hand, a development that diffused the issue.
Rich Neumeister, a citizen lobbyist and advocate for open government and personal privacy, said he wasn't sold on the idea of allowing the BCA to be the sole owner of drones. He said the BCA hasn't provided him adequate details about a $600,000 purchase of surveillance equipment, despite formal open records requests he filed in accordance with the state's data practices laws.
A bill banning surveillance dronesaltogether was offered by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, but was laid over by the committee for future consideration.