A proposal to allow criminal investigators with a court order to unlock homicide victims’ cellphones has gotten stuck in a House committee, after lawmakers split on the idea.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, expects to bring his House Bill 1040 back before the Commerce Committee, saying it has more support than Monday’s 6-6 vote suggested.
James said his proposal, called “The Louisiana Brittney Mills Act,” is not meant to extend investigative access to all phones but for cases like Brittney’s. She was 29 when she was slain while eight months’ pregnant in April 2015. Medical personnel rushed to deliver her child, but the baby died shortly after.
Tia Mills, Brittney’s sister, said the legislation would help detectives access her sister’s passcode-locked phone and move the homicide case forward. Brittney’s case remains unsolved, but investigators have said they believe the she knew her killer because of the details of the crime. Investigators said Brittney was shot multiple times in her apartment, and they said an initial investigation suggested the shooting may have occurred after she refused to lend someone her car.
Tia Mills said she is “confident there is critical information” on her sister’s phone that could help solve the case.
“We need to allow law enforcement to do their job,” she said.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III was not in attendance at the hearing, but supported James’ proposal.
Passcode-locked smartphones sold in Louisiana would need to have “back door” access under the bill, but tech advocates called the proposal the wrong approach and suggested it could threaten consumer protection. Caroline Joiner, executive director of TechNet, an advocacy group for tech executives, said industry leaders would not be able to grant limited access. Instead even “bad actors” would have access to encrypted smartphone devices, Joiner said.
“You can’t build a back door for just one device. It’s not just the good guys that are going to use it. That’s the concern here,” she said.
Nationally, the FBI has stirred conversation about locked smartphone devices with its most recent attempt to compel Apple to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. That attack left more than a dozen people dead or wounded last year. Apple refused the federal request, and Tia Mills said the company also refused her family’s request in her sister’s case.
James told the panel that he understands not wanting the government to tell company’s what to do, but he said providing an investigator access to a victims’ phone is not different than giving them access to a filing cabinet or vehicle glove box.
“I don’t get why they can’t unlock a phone to solve a murder in our community,” he said.
Joiner disagreed, saying lawmakers should wait for a federal law on phone encryption. A Louisiana law would only create a “patchwork” legal approach instead of a viable national solution, she said.
Committee Chair Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, said he didn’t think the proposal feasible and voted against the measure. Half of the present committee followed his lead, prompting James to shelve his proposal.
While James’ proposal stalled, the panel advanced to the full House Monroe Rep. Marcus Hunter’s House Bill 1118 allowing family members court-ordered control of a deceased person’s digital accounts.