NC bill would allow police to track phones without warrant

Supporters say it would help find kidnapping victims or runaway children. Critics fear that it would further extend the government's ability to secretly surveil people.
Posted 2023-04-26T18:21:19+00:00 - Updated 2023-05-01T20:31:40+00:00

Police could track people’s cellphones in real time — without a warrant — under a bill that passed a state House committee Wednesday.

The bill is intended to help law enforcement more quickly to find kidnapping victims or runaway children. Critics fear further extending the government’s ability to secretly surveil people.

“This just gives the SBI another tool in the toolbox,” said Republican Rep. Dudley Greene, the retired sheriff of McDowell County who is leading the push for the bill. “But it’s not just a tool. It’s an emergency tool, in very limited circumstances.”

The rules wouldn’t allow for warrantless wiretapping, to listen in on phone conversations. But police could track someone’s location, and information about who they’ve contacted, without needing a judge’s approval.

A similar bill passed the House in 2021 but failed to gain traction in the state Senate. Greene said he hopes that changes this year. The bill passed Wednesday’s committee with no opposition or debate. No lawmakers other than Greene commented on House Bill 719, either pro or con.

At the same time one House committee was meeting to debate this bill Wednesday, a different House committee was debating another bill criticized by civil liberties advocates as further expanding mass surveillance capabilities. House Bill 198 would, among other unrelated provisions, let the government put license plate readers on state-owned highways.

Some local governments already track the license plates of cars driving on city- or county-owned streets, but the cameras have been banned from state roads.

The proposal to end that ban has come up before at the state legislature and was shot down by an alliance of libertarian-minded Republicans and progressive Democrats. But it appears to have more support this year, WRAL News reported Wednesday.

As for cell phone tracking, North Carolina’s appellate courts have already signed off on police getting people’s historical location data from phone companies without a warrant. But real-time warrantless tracking has not been included.

The state chapter of the ACLU has fought against those court cases in the past. The group also opposed the prior version of this bill. But no ACLU representatives attended Wednesday’s meeting, and the group’s spokeswoman declined to comment, saying they haven't been following this year's version of the bill.

Stricter oversight rules

The 2021 version of the bill had originally proposed zero oversight of police officers to make sure they weren’t abusing their power, like by tracking love interests or otherwise violating the rules.

A key GOP backer of the bill said at the time that lawmakers expected police to be using their warrantless surveillance powers so much that any oversight would simply take too much time. But following outcry over the lack of accountability, the bill was amended to include some basic oversight provisions. It eventually passed the House unanimously.

This year’s version of the bill slightly strengthens the oversight rules. The 2021 bill would’ve required police officers who start tracking someone’s location without a warrant to go in front of a judge within 72 hours and get that judge’s approval to keep the surveillance going. This year’s version of the bill drops that to 48 hours.

The new version of the bill would also expand officers’ abilities to get warrants to track people’s phones.

It would allow a judge to find probable cause or reasonable suspicion that the suspect had committed any felony, or more minor crimes like a class 1 or A1 misdemeanor.

It would also allow warrants to be granted for cell phone tracking in cases where no crime has been committed but the police are concerned about “an emergency situation which involves the disappearance of an individual” who might face “an imminent risk of death or serious physical harm.”