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Dave Olson, Published July 06 2010

Law boosts police access to cell phone records to find missing persons

Tory Jacobson knows the value of phone records when looking for missing people who may be in trouble.

“I remember a juvenile that ran away with another person, and they were many states away. I got those records,” said Jacobson, a Moorhead police lieutenant. He welcomes a new law that takes effect Aug. 1 in Minnesota.

It’s called the Kelsey Smith Act, and it is patterned on a similar law that was passed in Kansas after 18-year-old Kelsey Smith was abducted and murdered in 2007.

When the young woman went missing, her family and police asked her cell phone company for records that might help find her. After the information was turned over four days later, it took authorities 45 minutes to find her body.

Under current Minnesota law, cell phone companies have the option of turning over information if asked for it by police.

Under the new law, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is to collect contact information for each wireless provider doing business in the state and give that information to public safety agencies on a quarterly basis.

Starting Aug. 1, if a law enforcement agency submits a written request to a wireless communications provider asking for records in an emergency situation involving the risk of death or serious physical harm, the company must turn over the records.

As long as the wireless provider acts in good faith, it is not subject to civil liability for releasing a user’s location information.

Cell phone company officials who testified in front of the Legislature before the law was passed spoke in favor of the bill because it would shield them from potential lawsuits.

Jacobson said phone companies have already proven they can be cooperative when police ask for help.

“My experience has been if we have possible endangerment – a 14-year-old that’s gone and we think they’ve left with an adult – we could get that information,” Jacobson said.

The Minnesota law was authored in the House by Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul.

“Hopefully, this law prevents what happened to the Smiths from ever happening again,” Johnson said in a written statement.

“It would be devastating if Minnesota lost a life because police couldn’t get the information they needed to find someone who has gone missing,” he added.

Jacobson said police handle missing person cases much differently now than they did years ago.

In the past, he said, officers might have waited before entering a name in a state database, relying on “a gut feeling” that an individual would turn up.

Now, he said, “When we take a missing person report, we have to enter them right away in the state system.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555