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Cell Phone Privacy Protection Passes First House Stop

March 18, 2013 - 7:00pm

An effort to protect the privacy of information contained within portable electronic devices made its first committee stop look more like a court of law than a legislative panel.

HB 797, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, would require a search warrant before law enforcement could search through the contents of a cell phone.It also prohibits using a devices tracking or location technology without prior court approval.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, sponsor of the bills Senate companion, SB 846, stood in to present the House bill, and explained its intent is to ensure a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to devices that now contain much more than email, photos and personal communications, but also financial information and can even access home security systems. The Republican of St. Petersburg said the bill would essentially stop a police officer from being able to stand on a roadside and sift through ones private, personal records.

How far are we willing to let law enforcement or government go in search of information? Can they go on fishing expeditions if they pull me over for a simple misdemeanor? he said.

Lawmakers grappled with issues of how the bill might complicate another piece of legislation currently making its way through the Legislature that would ban texting while driving. Sponsors of the legislation contend that while the phone could not be searched on the spot, it could be seized while a warrant was pursued.

But, Tim Stanfield, representing the Florida Police Chiefs Association, testified that his groups main concern was that the bill does not contain language with specifics about how or if an officer can seize and remove a cell phone from a suspect while waiting for a warrant.

Other members of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee questioned broader implications if it became law. The biggest issue was if the bill would statutorily expand constitutional rights granted by the Fourth Amendment.

Additionally, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, probed whether or not evidence found on a phone that was unrelated to the incident at hand would be admissible and could lead to additional criminal charges. After much discussion, the committee seemed to agree it would.

Rep. Ray Pilon, the committee's vice chairman, was the biggest skeptic. While supporting the reasoning behind the bill, the ex-law enforcement officer had concerns of the real-world implications of it and the unresolved issues within it. Feeling the bill was premature, he pushed to delay it. The Florida Supreme Court has yet to rule on a case that covers the power of an officer to search a mobile device.

Republican Rep. James Grant was deliberative in his response, pointing out that many times the courts beliefs and the Legislatures do not align. I do not find it improper for this body to stand up and say that when questions of search and seizure of a device that contains, as it was put by others, our entire life, that we put in place some protections to ensure that the search of that device is done subject to the Fourth Amendment, said the Tampa attorney.

Notwithstanding concerns with the bill's structure, the intent of it was enough to persuade a majority of the committee to vote in favor. It passed 9-4.

Anne Smith writes special to Sunshine State News.

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