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Missouri Legislature Considering Greater Privacy Protections

Posted: Jan 31, 2014 2:43 PM by Megan Schultz, KOMU 8 Reporter
Updated: Sep 12, 2014 5:28 PM

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JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri House and the Missouri Senate have introduced similar legislation that would extend more privacy rights to Missourians.

Missouri State Senator Rob Schaaf introduced to a Senate committee an amendment to the Missouri constitution that would add electronics to the Unreasonable Search and Seizure clause. Republican House Member Robert Cornejo introduced a bill that would require a search warrant specifically for location information on an electronic device.

This comes a few months after Edward Snowden leaked information that had many Americans feeling their privacy had been violated, especially in the use of cell phones. Both Schaaf and Cornejo said they introduced their legislation in response to the NSA controversy.

Right now, the Missouri constitution protects people from unreasonable search and seizures from "persons, papers, homes and effects." This means that in order to access any of these criteria, any government entity must get a search warrant from a judge after proving "probable cause."

Schaaf said the proposed amendment is to protect Missourians at both the local and state level.

"Let's say you get arrested and they have your cell phone, they can look on your cell phone , you know, without a warrant. That's wrong," Schaaf said. "They should have to have a warrant. Most people consider their cell phone to be sort of like their briefcase, an extension of their papers. But, that's not what the constitution says. The constitution was written long before there was electronics communications and data."

But, when KOMU 8 asked people about the proposed amendment, some mentioned car safety. If, for instance, someone gets in a car crash, a police officer on the scene can search the phone's contacts for an emergency contact, such as a spouse or parent.

"If you're unconscious and unable to speak and we want to notify, you know, a relative or something, we can look in your phone and do that notification," said Columbia Police Sgt. Joe Bernhard.

But, responding officers may not be able to do this on the scene if they have to obtain a search warrant.

Columbia Police and Highway Patrol said they aren't allowed to comment on specific legislation.

When KOMU 8 asked Schaaf's office what implications such an amendment would have on the car wreck situation, however, they said this problem wasn't the purpose of the bill and although they didn't mention any specifics, suggested a possible exception to the rule during emergencies.

Bernhard also said that the Columbia Police is ahead of the trend because officers already obtain search warrants when conducting investigations, even though it's not required by the constitution yet. If there is reason to believe that someone was texting or on the phone seconds before a major crash, for example, the police can seize the phone and obtain a search warrant to look through the phone history.

"We routinely get search warrants for anything electronic, computers thing like that," said Bernhard. "It just makes the whole investigation cleaner and stand up in court, there's no question later on whether you followed the evidence or not. If you have a search warrant from a judge, pretty much, that's going to get in the court."

But, the amendment could also have national implications.

Senator Schaaf says Missouri is the first state to propose this type of amendment to a state constitution, but he hopes to inspire other states to do the same.

"Well see my goal is to create a national debate," said Schaaf. "I don't think the bill would do a whole lot in Missouri, but if there's an overwhelming vote for it, which I think there would be, then it would certainly stir a national debate."

If other states adopted such an amendment, this may spark the federal government to consider its own amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But, MU political science professor Paul Wallace, who teaches a course about terrorism, says this amendment could have major implications for national security.

"It's central to national security because one of the major considerations now in terms of national security is that a tradeoff between security and privacy," said Wallace. "And this is being argued on the national level in Congress all the time. Wednesday, James Clapper, head of the National Intelligence Agency, testified before a Senate Committee and he point blankely said that cyber terrorism is the number one problem for the U.S. This is the second year he's identified cyber terrorism as the number one concern for homeland security."

In regards to this tradeoff, more privacy with unreasonable search and seziure of electronics could mean less security, especially, Wallace says, if obtaining a search warrant takes time that could be precious in the midst of a terrorist threat.

But, he says he agrees with the amendment, saying he values protection, especially from the NSA.

The Senate floor is expected to vote on the amendment next week, and the House bill is in committee. If both the Senate and House pass the amendment, voters will vote on the issue in November.

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