Kelsey Smith Act Fails to Pass House; Other Communication Bills Approved

May 25, 2016–In a 229-158 House vote yesterday evening, a bill aimed at providing law enforcement officials with cellphone location information during emergencies failed to receive two-thirds approval required for passage under suspension of the rules. Known as the Kelsey Smith Act (HR 4889) after a crime victim who died when it took four days for law enforcement to obtain location information from her cellphone provider, the bill would require telecommunications carriers to share location data if law enforcement believes that someone is in danger of death or serious harm. 

Democrats have raised privacy concerns about HR 4889 and called for changes to the bill to require law enforcement officials to seek after-the-fact approval from courts to confirm that they had probable cause to believe that there was an emergency with risk of death or serious physical injury or that the location was needed to respond to a 911 call. In a statement after the vote, House communications and technology subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R., Ore.) said, “The time was now to act. The time was now to help families find abducted children and I’m disappointed my colleagues could not support this narrowly written bill.”

“We worked diligently to make this a bill that balanced privacy concerns with the importance of saving lives. It’s modeled after the law of the state of Oregon that passed unanimously through a Democratic legislature and was signed by a Democratic governor. The majority of the House supported this measure, so, I’m frustrated with my colleagues who voted against providing law enforcement with a critical tool to protect the public in urgent situations where every second counts. This bill respected the rights of the state and local legislatures to determine for themselves the appropriate procedures for law enforcement to protect their citizens privacy. I will continue to work to see this life saving tool made available nationwide,” Chairman Walden added.

HR 4889 was introduced by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R., Kan.). Three other communications-related bills from the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the chamber yesterday evening, two on voice votes.

The House approved the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters (SANDy) Act (HR 3998) on a 389-2 vote.  The bill, which was introduced by Commerce Committee ranking minority member Frank Pallone (D., N.J.), would require the FCC to launch proceedings to address wireless network roaming during disasters and would require the FCC and Government Accountabilty Office to examine network resiliency during emergencies. It would also recognize wireline and wireless communications, and broadcast, cable, and satellite TV and radio as critical services with access to disaster sites during an emergency.

Chairman Walden said, “More can be done to improve public safety and emergency response after disasters like Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the largest Atlantic superstorm in recorded history.  This legislation makes a common sense change to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to recognize not only wireline and mobile telephone service but also broadcast radio, broadcast television, cable service, and broadcast satellite service as essential services in these times of emergency. Without question these services are critical to ensuring the safety and well-being of those impacted by disasters.”

The Kari’s Law Act (HR 4167), which passed on voice vote, would require multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) such as those found in hotels to connect 911 calls even if the user omits a dialing code (such as “9”) otherwise required to get an outside line.  It was introduced by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas).

In a statement, Chairman Walden said, “In the heat of emergency, every person in America deserves the peace of mind to know that on any phone, 9-1-1 means 9-1-1. Period.  Let’s support a law that provides certainty and protects emergency callers across the country.”

In a statement, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has long championed the issue of ensuring direct access to public safety answering points from MLTS lines, said in a statement that he applauded “the U.S. House of Representatives for passing Kari’s Law (H.R. 4167) last night. The passage of this legislation is due first and foremost to the courageous leadership that Hank Hunt, Kari’s father, has shown in drawing attention to this critical issue. If enacted, Kari’s Law will help ensure that every call to 911 directly connects those in need with emergency personnel who can help. I hope that the U.S. Senate moves quickly to pass the companion legislation introduced by Senators Deb Fischer, Amy Klobuchar, John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and Brian Schatz and that this common-sense, bipartisan public safety measure soon becomes law.”

Patrick Halley, executive director of the NG9-1-1 Institute, said, “All consumers should be able to dial  three numbers, and only three numbers – 9-1-1 – to receive help in emergency situations regardless of where they are calling from.  The NG9-1-1 Institute applauds the passage of Kari’s Law in the House and the recent approval of similar legislation by the Senate Commerce Committee.  Ensuring direct access to 9-1-1 for all callers, including users of multi-line telephone systems, is a critical public safety issue.”

Finally, the House approved by voice vote HR 2589, which would require the FCC to publish on its website changes to its rules not later than 24 hours after the changes are adopted.  An amendment successfully offered by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., Calif.) during the full committee markup addressed Democratic concerns by allowing for the publishing of dissenting opinions and explanatory texts (TRDaily, April 28).

Chairman Walden said, “Improving the process at the FCC so that it operates in an effective and transparent manner holds the FCC accountable and targets their struggle to make its newly adopted rules available to the public in a timely fashion.”

Full Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R., Mich.) said, “Our work continues to advance thoughtful solutions that make a difference for folks across the country.  Two of these bills work to ensure Americans are protected in time of emergency. One seeks to bring much needed transparency to the FCC. Taken together, they are a testament to our ongoing bipartisan record of success.”

Asked today about the prospects for the bills in the Senate, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, John Thune (R., S.D.), said that he supports the bills and that “hopefully we can get them across the finish line.” —Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily