‘Brittney Mills Act’ fails to pass in La. House committee

Dr. Tia Mills, Brittney’s sister (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) – A bill that would have created a way for investigators to access the phones of murder victims was stalled in House committee Monday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Edward Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, failed to pass out of the House Commerce Committee. After a motion to pass the bill failed with a tie vote of 6-6, James asked to voluntarily defer the bill.

HB 1040 would require that all phones made, sold, or leased in Louisiana be capable of being unlocked for law enforcement in the case of murder investigations. If the phone cannot be unlocked, the seller or leaser faces a $2,500 fine per phone. There are exceptions to this rule in the case where a phone user may have downloaded a third party encryption app.

“It’s not just about justice, it’s about comfort and security for the family,” James told the committee.

The bill is nicknamed the “Louisiana Brittney Mills Act,” in honor of the woman who inspired the legislation. Mills was killed last April at age 29, but the case remains open and the killer unidentified.

Mills was shot after opening the door to her apartment. She was eight months pregnant at the time, and while a medical team was able to deliver the baby, he died a few days later.

Investigators believe Mills’ cellphone may be the key to catching the killer. However, detectives cannot get inside because the phone is passcode protected. Mills’ family said she changed her passcode just days before she was shot.

Investigators asked Apple to unlock the device, but that request was denied.

“When a person dies, we receive access to everything that individual owns, from vehicles to bank accounts. We would like to grant law enforcement the ability to access her cellular phone,” said Dr. Tia Mills, Brittney’s sister. “Today it is my sister and nephew, tomorrow it could be a member of anyone’s family.”

The bill did receive pushback, including some lawmakers who thought that they should wait on federal lawmakers to pass legislation about smartphones rather than create a patchwork of rules across the state.

“We cannot wait on Congress. I didn’t come here to wait on Congress,” James protested to committee members.

Lawmakers, including Committee Chairman Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, also expressed concern about the apparent cost of enforcing the rule. The Department of Justice estimated it would cost more than $1 million in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, citing a need to hire more staff and purchase new vehicles.

James protested that estimate, saying that the rule only applies to specific murder cases and thus the cost should not be as high.

Representatives from Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint all objected to the measure, though declined to speak before the committee. Meanwhile, a representative for the tech community warned that creating a way to override the encryption for one smartphone could create a security threat for all phones.

“Once that vulnerability exists, any party that discovers it, including criminals and foreign governments, can exploit to bypass security and access sensitive data,” said Caroline Joiner, the executive director of TechNet.

Mills’ mother said tech giants need to remember the victims of families.

“They talk about all the consumers and whatnot that they have — a lot of their victims were Apple consumers. And then what about the survivors? They need to think about that also,” said Barbara Mills, Brittney’s mother.

James said he hopes to bring the bill back to the committee again some time before the end of session.

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