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Kelsey Smith Act would save lives, cost taxpayers nothing

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In the midst of all the news about gun control and terrorism, I hope the Kelsey Smith Act, introduced this week in both houses of Congress by Kansas lawmakers, gets the attention and support it deserves.

Kelsey was an 18-year-old girl from Overland Park, Kan., who was abducted in broad daylight in the parking lot of a Target store just a couple of miles from my house on June 2, 2007.

Sixteen seconds. That’s how long it took Kelsey’s killer to overtake her when she put a package in her car. He abducted her, raped her and strangled her with her own belt.

It was four days before Kelsey’s body was found in a wooded area in Kansas City, Mo. It took those four days for Verizon Wireless, her cellphone carrier, to hand over information about the location of her cellphone, which she had on her when she was abducted. When they did, her body was found within an hour.

How long will it take Congress to pass the Kelsey Smith Act — legislation that would require cellphone providers to give the location of a cellphone when law enforcement deems the situation an emergency?

“It may take some time to get this done,” Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican from Overland Park, Kan., said at a news conference Monday. (In the interest of transparency, he represents the 3rd district of Kansas, where I live.) “It’s not easy to get a bill through the House and Senate right now and get it on the president’s desk.”

Yoder introduced the legislation  this week, along with co-sponsor Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Republican who represents the 2nd district in Kansas. Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) sponsored compatible legislation in the Senate.

It’s the third time the bill has been introduced on the federal level, but it’s been passed in Kansas and eight other states so far and in Alberta, Canada, as well (where it’s awaiting proclamation before it can become law), Greg and Missey Smith, Kelsey’s parents, told me during an interview. They have made it their mission to get the law passed in as many states as possible and have traveled around the country to testify on its behalf.

The law can save lives and it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, they emphasized. The technology is already in existence; cellphones are in constant communication with the nearest towers, even if they’re not being used. Those “pings,” as they’re sometimes called, can help pinpoint the location of a phone.

The Smiths say they realize that quicker access to Kelsey’s cellphone location probably would not have saved her life — authorities believe she was killed within an hour of her abduction — but it would have saved the family “four days of agony,” Missey Smith told me.

Federal law already allows the release of such information, but with the Kelsey Smith Law, “the decision-making will be up to the police and not the cellphone provider,” Missey Smith said. “Do you want the customer service representative making that decision at 2 a.m. or the police?”

“It takes the existing law and codifies it so everyone knows the rule,” Greg Smith, a former police officer and now Kansas state senator, explained to me. It also removes the threat of liability from the wireless carriers.

The only opposition to the bill is over privacy concerns, but the companies won’t release the content of text messages or e-mails. “When you use your land line to call 911, the company knows your location,” Greg Smith said. “This is someone who would dearly love to call 911 and say ‘Help me.’ Why not use this information?”

On the other hand, “it removes a check on when law enforcement can access this type of information,” Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told “An emergency can’t be a magic word – where all police have to do is say ‘emergency’ and cellphone companies release information.”

But the payoff is in the lives that can be saved with quick access to cellphone information, and the Smiths know of “saves,” as they call examples such as the child recovered from a suspected  rapist before any injury had occurred in Tennessee.

Saralyn Hayes, 911 manager for the Mid-America Regional Council, has testified in support of the bill about dramatic rescues. “There was a lady who woke up in a hotel room with a man keeping her against her will,” Hayes told me. She was able to text a friend but couldn’t call 911 and the carrier found her location. In another case, an elderly man pulled his car over and called his wife that he wasn’t feeling well, but before he could contact 911, he passed out.

“There are people who are alive because Kelsey isn’t,” Missy Smith told me. “People don’t even know the 18-year-old who saved their life.”