Thursday, September 11, 2014

Debunking weird cop claim that warrants already required for cell-phone location data

On Monday, Eric Nicholson of the Dallas Observer followed up this Grits post with his own reportage, including quotes from your correspondent, regarding the (to me, non)debate over whether warrants are required under current Texas law for police to access historical cell-phone location data.

For some reason, law enforcement interests at the capitol are telling legislative staff that warrants are already required because of the Stickland/Dutton amendment (based on a bill first suggested by the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition) which required a warrant for cloud-based email and other content. But the legislation didn't reach location data nor other "metadata," as the term has been popularized post-Edward Snowden.

Law enforcement interests took a completely different position when the two bills were in play in 2013. Back then, I can say from first-hand experience, the cops were willing to acquiesce on warrants for email and cloud-based content. But they fought tooth and nail against HB 1608. They ultimately convinced the authors of the bill to which Hughes had amended it - state Sen. John Carona, who lost his primary to Senator-elect Don Huffines, and Rep. John Frullo, who is returning - to strip Hughes' language out of the final version that passed.

So the Legislature did not change the law, which presently allows agencies to get location and other metadata under lesser federal standards or even a subpoena, as is done by the Department of Insurance according to the agency's testimony to a Texas House committee last year.

As the Grits and Observer posts point out, the cops' stance also contradicts recent, on-point caselaw. In Ford v. State, a Fourth Court of Appeals (San Antonio) case delivered in August which found there was no warrant requirement because of the Third Party doctrine. See pp. 16-28 of the opinion for the court's reading of current Texas law on cell-phone location data, which jibes pretty closely with past appellate rulings. (The 14th Court of Appeals in Houston ruled similarly last year in Barfield v. State.) The courts aren't going to fix this and the appellate judges are telling us the Legislature hasn't done so either, yet. No matter what law enforcement is saying to legislative staff, the Stickland/Dutton amendment simply did not reach cell-phone location data; Ford and Barfield make clear that that would require further legislative action.

In many ways, I'm glad TXEPC, of which I'm a proud member, launched our campaign to require a warrant for cell-phone location data in Texas nearly a year before the Edward Snowden revelations. The 107 joint and co-authors who signed onto the bill in the House weren't reacting to some trendy national scandal about the NSA or the Obama Administration, but because they agreed with the concept independently, on the merits. It's true, if Snowden had come forward two months earlier, both bills would have passed instead of just one, as I told Mr. Nicholson. But if we can pick up the warrant requirement for location data (like a bowling spare) in 2015, the effort won't have been in vain. Next week's Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on electronic privacy should give us a better idea of where we stand in the upper chamber.

To prepare for his post, Eric watched the House committee hearing on Rep. Bryan Hughes' HB 1608 back in 2013 (See Grits coverage here and here, or watch the hearing yourself here beginning at the 3:37:15 mark on the video.) He observed, in retrospect: "Watching the committee hearing, it's almost quaint to watch lawmakers grapple with the notion that the cell phone in their pocket is continually transmitting enough data to give anyone crunching it a time-stamped map of their locations and habits. Snowden wouldn't bring the concept of cell-phone metadata to public consciousness for another three months."

My hope is that the warrants for location data bill gets low bill numbers and an early start in both chambers so that stalling tactics can't kill the popular legislation, as happened in 2013. There are other issues on the State Affairs Committee's interim charge list on electronic privacy that aren't as well developed, but in the case of the Hughes/Estes/Hinojosa legislation on cell-phone location data, it's been vetted through the process and is ready to move, if the leadership will allow it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you can bet that if some of our less dutiful legislators weren't in session & should have been & someone called for them & announced where there were by metadata, the law would change in a big hurry.