Technology can’t crash system

Sometimes a bit of technology can fry the circuits of the legislative and judicial branches.

What else can explain the inclination of lawmakers and courts to treat cellphones and laptops as exotic and complex problems? To behave as if our society has entered some new dimension where existing legal principles must be re-engineered?

Take, for example, the issue of “pinging.”

State Sen. John McCoy has encouraged the Legislature to compel wireless companies to cooperate when police need cellphone tracking information in cases of life-or-death emergencies.

McCoy has experienced the value of cellphone tracking in his own, less-threatening circumstances. In recent months, he has twice helped police recover his stolen cellphones by sharing location data emitted by his phones.

As McCoy told the Daily Herald last week, he hopes his examples will create some momentum in Olympia for House Bill 1897. The bill didn’t make it through the Legislature’s last session, and a staff analysis raised cautions about privacy rights and possible differences in federal and Washington state protections.

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney emphasized that any cellphone tracking law needs to clearly define what constitutes a clear emergency — not just a policeman acting “on a hunch.”

State and federal laws and many court decisions already address questions of privacy and search and seizure. Police agencies incorporate these guidelines into their standard practices (shifting course from time to time in response to political tides and judicial tinkering.)

Law enforcement officers generally know when and how they are allowed to stop citizens, chase suspects, request land-line telephone records, and respond to deadly threats. Do police ever misstep? Surely. And do courts and legislatures stand ready to clarify right from wrong? Just as surely.

Digital technology can seem complicated. But in writing cellphone “pinging” laws, our Legislature should not assume that its task needs to get bogged down by complications.

Start with cases like McCoy’s stolen phones. Lawmakers should specify that ping information furnished by theft victims is sufficient grounds for police to stop a vehicle or seek a search warrant. (The signal, after all, informs on the victim’s device, not on the suspect.)

In life-or-death emergencies, lawmakers should give police quick access to tracking data in the same kinds of circumstances in which they now permit “hot” pursuit or warrantless searches.

This already happens in low-tech search-and-seizure cases — it is the nature of our system.

Laws like these can be written and passed. It’s not so complicated.

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