State lawmakers Monday passed a new bill that would limit the Nebraska State Patrol’s authority to delve into peoples’ phone records without first obtaining a court order.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha introduced Legislative Bill 952 after learning that state police were using “administrative subpoenaes” to obtain people’s phone and computer records in criminal investigations. The administrative subpoenaes, unlike more formal subpoenas, do not require a judge’s approval to be issued.
Passed in a 49-0 vote, the measure would prevent the Patrol from issuing administrative subpoenaes in its own in criminal investigations. A county attorney or the state attorney general, however, would have the authority to issue the subpoenaes in some circumstances.
The bill now goes to Gov. Dave Heineman to decide whether to sign it into law.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said the measure provides an important safeguard.
“We don’t want agencies of state government to access personal records without the oversight of the legal system,” he said. “The potential for abuse was significant.”
Administrative subpoenaes are authorized under a 1929 law that allows agencies, such as the Banking Department and the Insurance Department, to obtain business and other records under their regulatory authority. The law did not apply to the Nebraska State Patrol until the late 1990s, when it was designated an executive agency under the governor’s authority.
In an opinion last year, Attorney General Jon Bruning ruled that the Patrol could use administrative subpoenaes to obtain subscriber information from telecommunications and computer services, such as phone numbers called and phone calls taken.