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Lawmakers debate surveillance bills

DFL Rep. Joe Atkins has proposed a bill requiring police to obtain a search warrant to track someone’s cellphone rather than using more easily obtained administrative subpoenas or court orders. The bill provides for several exceptions, including life-threatening circumstances and missing person cases. (File photo)

DFL Rep. Joe Atkins has proposed a bill requiring police to obtain a search warrant to track someone’s cellphone rather than using more easily obtained administrative subpoenas or court orders. The bill provides for several exceptions, including life-threatening circumstances and missing person cases. (File photo)

In response to the proliferation of surveillance technologies now available to law enforcement, a House panel on Tuesday took four hours of testimony on a raft of bills aimed at restricting the government’s use of cellphone tracking devices and drones.

The proposed measures drew some criticism from police groups, elicited support from civil liberties advocates and prompted a few testy exchanges among lawmakers on the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

As befitted “Black Helicopter Day at the Capitol” — the term used by one lobbyist to describe the agenda — there was even a whiff of conspiracy in the air.

The most notable testimony in that regard came from Thomas Evenstad, a self-proclaimed gubernatorial candidate and convicted sex offender who claimed that he had been framed by the police. Evenstad also used his allotted time to chide the committee for its dearth of African-American members and, just in case the Bob Marley T-shirt and sunglasses worn indoors didn’t convey the message, to express support for marijuana legalization.

Much of the day’s discussion focused on the use of cellphone-tracking devices. Under a bill proposed by Rep. Joe Atkins, police wanting to track an individual would be required to obtain a search warrant rather than more easily obtained administrative subpoenas or court orders. The bill provides for several exceptions, including life-threatening circumstances and missing person cases.

“I don’t want to stop law enforcement from using this tool,” said Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “All this does is apply the same sorts of protections that come with a search warrant.”

The bill would limit the use of the phone trackers to felony-level cases and require police to notify individuals whose location is tracked, although that notification could be delayed in cases under active investigation.

Law enforcement objections

Those provisions were met with objections from top law-enforcement officials.

Drew Evans, the assistant superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, called phone trackers “extremely important to law enforcement.” He said the BCA has used the trackers for about five years, primarily in violent crime investigations, and is “continually examining the privacy implications.”

Several lawmakers with police backgrounds also expressed reservations about the push for restrictions.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, called the restrictions “a little over the top.” Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said lawmakers were exploiting the scandal over the National Security Agency snooping.

“Our local law enforcement has been villainized a little bit for trying to do our job,” said Schoen. “There have been a lot of people around here using this conversation for political gain.”

A second phone-tracker bill, authored by Rep. John Lesch, is similar to the Atkins bill but differs in two regards. Under the emergency exemptions to the search warrant requirement, it would still require that police document use of tracking devices by submitting a signed statement to a court within two days. Additionally, Lesch’s bill would mandate an annual report to the Legislature documenting all the instances in which trackers were used.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, testified in support of the Lesch bill. “The ACLU is not opposed to the use of this technology,” he said. “However, we believe that safety should not come at the expense of civil liberties.”

That sentiment was echoed by Eric Bauer, a political science major at the University of Minnesota. “I’ve grown up in a society consumed with fear about crime and terrorism,” Bauer said.

A third cellphone-tracker bill — also authored by Lesch and introduced at the last minute — would have restricted ownership of such devices to the BCA. Currently, the BCA and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department are the only two Minnesota police agencies that possess phone trackers.

The measure drew heated response from fellow lawmakers. “You’re a smart guy and a good legislator,” Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, told Lesch. “It’s not good policy, it’s not good legislation, when things aren’t clearly vetted.”

Lesch indicated that he introduced the measure because the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department failed to send a representative to a legislative fact-finding hearing on police surveillance in January. At that hearing, Lesch made a point of repeatedly calling on Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek to testify.

The public display irked Stanek enough that he sent a letter of complaint, dated Jan. 31, to House Speaker Paul Thissen. Stanek wrote that he had cooperated with Lesch and that he was “extremely disappointed” by the “grandstanding.”

On Tuesday, after a several hour break in committee proceedings, Stanek arrived in the flesh and testified about his department’s use of the tracker. He said it has employed the device 25 times over the past three years, mainly in connection with violent crimes and often at the behest of other police agencies in the county.

Following Stanek’s testimony, Lesch backed off his push to strip the Sheriff’s Department of its phone tracker.

Drone bills also heard

The committee also weighed three bills designed to address the use of camera-equipped drones, another emerging concern for privacy activists. The most restrictive measure — authored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis — would have made it a felony for private citizens to use drones to photograph anyone without consent. In addition, it called for strict limits on use of drones by government agencies.

“It is the most complete in terms of what it does, so it’s probably the least likely to pass,” said Kahn. After hearing objections from lawmakers and aerial photography enthusiasts, Kahn proved that assertion correct and agreed to lay her bill over.

The least complicated drone bill came from Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge. Unlike Kahn, Johnson did not address the issue of private drone use. In an echo of the earlier phone-tracker debate, Johnson’s measure would impose a search warrant requirement for law enforcement agencies using drones to gather evidence. As in the case of the phone-tracker bills, it would provide exceptions to the warrant requirement in emergencies.

Johnson said it is important that lawmakers act soon. While drones are not in widespread use in Minnesota, Johnson said that some law-enforcement agencies have collected evidence acquired via military drones. “If agencies keep using it without guidance, it creates problems down the road,” Johnson said.

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, called Johnson’s bill “a good start” and urged the committee to move it forward.

The final drone bill, authored by Lesch, includes similar warrant requirements but contains far more explicit regulations. Among the most notable: a mandate that a governing body approve all drone purchases, a prohibition against “the use of facial recognition or other biometric matching technology” without a judge’s approval, a requirement that subjects of drone surveillance receive notification, and, finally, a requirement that images of people not under investigation be deleted within 24 hours.

Franklin said law enforcement has concerns about several of those provisions. In particular, Franklin cited the requirement that subjects of drone surveillance be notified, saying that it could present “officer safety issues.”

Responded Lesch: “I don’t think I’ve ever sponsored a bill that would get anyone killed. Absolutely, I will work with law enforcement.”

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