Bill Named After Murdered Girl Fails House Vote. Thank Goodness.

Hard cases make bad law and exploiting grief is bad politics.


Lorna |

The Kelsey Smith Act was named after an 18-year-old woman who was abducted from a Target parking lot and killed. For the last four years, Smith's family has been backing a bill to force telecommunications companies to hand over data about the whereabouts of a cellphone at the time of a call to law enforcement in emergency situations. Seems like this sort of thing should sail right though Congress, right? After all, we've got: 

Tragic story about violence done to a young white woman: check!

Grieving family on display at the Capitol: check!

Bill named after the victim: check!

Increased powers that law enforcement has been demanding for years anyway: check!

Then, a surprising twist: The Kelsey Smith Act failed on the floor of the House this week with a vote of 229-158 (it needed two-third of the vote to pass, because it was considered "under suspension of the rules"). Smith's family was in the gallery, as The Huffington Post's Matt Fuller noted yesterday, adding a particularly embarrassing emotional layer to proceedings.

Thank goodness. It was a bad bill and it deserved to be voted down.

If you're thinking that I'm an insensitive jerk right now, congrats: You've been successfully manipulated by lawmakers and law enforcement who want to expand their power under cover of human tragedy. 

People who backed this bill are surely well-intentioned, but here's the thing: The new powers granted to law enforcement in the bill would almost certainly have wound up being used primarily to track down everyday criminals, drug dealers, and, heck, probably people who say mean things about the size of Donald Trump's appendages—not just in rare emergency abduction scenarios. What's more, if the law had already been in place when Kelsey was abducted, it almost certainly would NOT have helped find her before she was killed.

Current law already allows telecom providers to share info with police in emergencies if the user has given permission or if law enforcement clears a few existing bureaucratic and judicial hurdles to prove to the company that an emergency is indeed underway, as the R Street Institute has noted. This bill would have taken a bigger dent out of the Fourth Amendment by removing even those minimal barriers—which are designed to protect users' privacy—and leaving the definition of emergency up to law enforcement, as the ACLU noted earlier this year.

The lawmakers who voted against this bill did the right thing. If there's anyone who should be ashamed about how this played out, it's the guys and gals who trotted out grieving family members to score political points.

Handy rule of thumb: Bills named after victims (or those with cutesy acronyms) should raise red flags; they're more likely than usual to be classic examples of the legislative sub-variant of the "hard cases making bad law" principle.