Editorial: Warrants, subpoenas should be more carefully used

Published February 15, 2014 1:01 am
Police need more oversight
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For a clutch of politicians who claim to be worried about the overreach of the federal government, members of the Utah Legislature have so far shown little stomach for the task of limiting the excessive powers of state and local governments.

But, apparently, taking their oversight responsibilities seriously is not nearly as much fun for Utah legislators as complaining about things over which they have no control.

Before this session began, a few lawmakers were making some hopeful noises about reining in some law enforcement practices that clearly need to be limited by law. But bills that would require more reasonable use of warrants and subpoenas have been stalled.

Also stalled, fortunately, is a bill that would take a serious step in the wrong direction by granting immunity to police officers who injure people in foolish (which nearly almost all of them are) high-speed chases.

Bills that would put limits on two kinds of tools used — often wrongly — by law enforcement agencies were introduced.

One concerns something called an administrative subpoena. Prosecutors can use those to demand that an Internet service provider fork over records of a specific user's online activities, without having to seek the kind of court order that is necessary for the normal search warrant.

It is a tool created by previous act of the Legislature on the grounds that it would help in the hunt for online sexual predators, in urgent cases where waking up a judge to sign a warrant would take too much time.

Except reports ferreted out by Salt Lake Tribune reporters show that of the more than 1,000 such instruments issued between 2009 and 2012, only 11 were issued on the same day as an alleged crime. There was no evidence that investigators could not have done the same thing through the warrant process assumed by the U.S. Constitution. A bill to tighten that requirement, though, has not been heard.

The other tool that needs sharpening is the one that allows militarized police units to get warrants to storm into people's homes on the flimsiest of reasons, endangering themselves and others. Such a raid, at the home of a man who grew marijuana in his house, led to the death of one officer in Ogden two years ago.

A draft bill, now stuck in committee, would at least make police convince a judge that some less confrontational action, like arresting someone as they walk down the street, isn't workable.

Bills to address both problems are tied up in procedure. But there is still time to resuscitate and pass them into law.

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