Mother of murdered teen pushes for law forcing cellphone carriers to release life-saving information

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Published April 13, 2013

| FoxNews.com

When 18-year-old Kelsey Smith was abducted in broad daylight outside a Kansas shopping mall in 2007, the teen's parents spent four harrowing days searching for their daughter, whose body was found after police scoured an area close to a tower where her cellphone last pinged.

But the search for the young woman would have ended much sooner had Verizon Wireless promptly handed over cellphone records to authorities, according to Smith's mother as well as a U.S. congressman – both of whom are calling for legislation mandating that all cellphone carriers provide police with a customer's location information in an emergency.

Current federal law allows cellphone companies to release information to police in certain situations, but it does not require them to do so. “Kelsey’s Law” seeks to mandate it on the state and ultimately national level.

“We want to create a national standard to make it very clear and easy for law enforcement and families of victims in the case of an emergency to be able to locate their missing loved one,” Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., told FoxNews.com. “In Kelsey’s case, they had the information but they weren't releasing it because they didn’t have clear defined procedures.”

“The hope is that if done right, it could stop a rape, abduction or a murder in progress,” said Yoder, who plans to introduce the bill in Congress on April 15. The bill was first proposed by Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins and former Rep. Todd Tiahrt in previous years, but it did not pass.

Smith, who just 10 days prior had graduated from high school, was forced into her car by 26-year-old Edwin Roy "Jack" Hall as she walked through the parking lot of a Target store behind the Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kansas, on June 2, 2007. Hall drove Smith 20 miles across state lines to Missouri, where he raped and strangled the young woman with her own belt, leaving her body covered in brush in woods near a lake.

Smith's parents acknowledge that their daughter was likely killed by the time authorities were notified of her disappearance – and that any information obtained by Verizon would not have changed that outcome.    

“It would not have saved Kelsey’s life,” Missey Smith said of the law she is advocating, “But it would have saved us four days of agony not knowing where our child was.”

Verizon eventually released the information four days after she disappeared, and her body was found within an hour. 

Sgt. Charles Tippie of the Overland Police Department, who worked on the case, said the teen’s cellphone provider was cooperative to the extent that it could be six years ago.

“Did Verizon have easily available to them the technical capacity to identify the specific location of a phone?” Tippie said. “That information was available to their engineers back in the day, but it wasn’t available to the Verizon person we contacted at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

“That has now changed,” he said. “We call them up and say we have an emergency and we get the information immediately.”

But that isn’t always the case for local law enforcement in many states. Only nine have adopted Kelsey’s Law, requiring cellphone companies to release pertinent information to police in an emergency, like an abducted teenager or an elderly person who wanders off and can’t be found. Since Kansas adopted the law in 2009, Nebraska, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Missouri, Hawaii, Tennessee and Utah have followed suit.

Missey Smith and her husband, Greg, a Kansas state senator, are the law's toughest proponents, traveling the country to lobby the legislation by speaking before lawmakers in various states. The couple visited Rhode Island last week and Nevada on Monday.

The latest draft of Kelsey’s law, obtained by FoxNews.com, also protects cellphone providers from lawsuits, stating, “No cause of action shall lie in any court against any provider of a commercial mobile service or an IP-enabled voice service, its officers, employees or agents for providing call location information” in an emergency situation.  

“The information is readily available to cellphone providers within 15 to 20 minutes and we could not get our cell provider at the time to release that information,” Missey Smith told FoxNews.com. “This is not an issue of privacy. It’s not a matter of content – we’re not asking for text messages or information about who the person is contacting. We’re simply asking for the location of the phone.”

“This law costs zero to implement,” she added. “And it absolutely saves lives.”

Such was the case in Loudon County, Tenn., in May 2012, one month after the governor signed the bill into law. Local authorities there were able to quickly obtain cellphone records from Verizon leading them to a suspected child rapist who was believed to have snatched a child.

"They had reason to believe the child was in imminent danger, and we were able to use the Kelsey Smith Act to obtain the location of the suspect’s cellphone without having to go through a court order process," said Jennifer Estes, president of the Tennessee Emergency Number Association. 

In most cases, victims of abductions by strangers are killed within a very narrow window of time -- making it imperative for law enforcement to obtain cellphone records quickly.

"Time is of the essence when a child is missing -- the first 3 hours are critical to recovering a child alive," John Ryan, chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said in an email to FoxNews.com. "Law enforcement must be able to obtain cellphone locations as quickly as possible in these circumstances. We support the efforts to clarify current laws to prevent any delays in disclosing this information in cases of missing children, which includes persons under age 21 under federal law."  

Debra Lewis, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said the phone carrier supports the Smiths in their effort to pass the bill, but declined to comment further on the legislation. 

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union say proposals such as Kelsey’s Law raise some privacy concerns.

“The major one is that it removes a check on when law enforcement can access this type of information,” Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, told FoxNews.com.

“An emergency can’t be a magic word – where all police have to do is say ‘emergency’ and cellphone companies release information,” he said.

While Calabrese acknowledged that the vast majority of calls by local police are legitimate emergencies, many have also been proven not to be. 

“People want companies to safeguard their information and this removes their discretion to do that,” he said.

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