OLYMPIA - The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from collecting and storing information about an individual's political, religious or other First Amendment-protected views unless "there is reasonable suspicion that the subject of the information is or may be involved in criminal conduct or activity."
Law enforcement turned out in force in opposition to the bill. Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the bill would prevent police from collecting information and storing it as they conduct criminal investigations.
“We call these tidbits of information ‘clues,’” he said. “If you pass that bill, you will effectively prevent us from collecting that information.”
Police also raised concerns about the potential cost of the bill, which calls for audits of law enforcement agencies to ensure compliance.
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A member of Washington’s American Civil Liberties Union and others spoke in support of the bill. The Washington ACLU has criticized recent instances in which local law enforcement agencies have conducted surveillance of and collected data about anti-Iraq War groups in Olympia and elsewhere.
ACLU officials at Wednesday’s hearing said law enforcement’s characterizations of the bill were false.
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the prime sponsor of the bill, suggested that the bill would create some accountability for agencies that investigate and collect information about protected speech.
Michael German, the ACLU’s policy counsel in Washington, D.C., and a former FBI agent, said unjustified law enforcement investigations of political activity protected by the First Amendment have a chilling effect on such speech and are “damaging to democracy.”
German said that “investigating or collecting ‘intelligence’ about people not reasonably suspected of criminal activity is not only an unnecessary violation of their rights, it is a waste of finite law enforcement resources that pollutes intelligence databases with irrelevant information, and when discovered, undermines public trust.”
One of the more recent examples of government surveillance of local activists came to light in summer 2009, when it was revealed that former Joint Base Lewis-McChord civilian employee John Towery had attended meetings of Olympia Port Militarization Resistance, an anti-war group also known as OlyPMR, under an assumed name.
More information came to light about Towery’s surveillance in January, when the City of Tacoma responded to a public-records request from a Tacoma activist.
Tacoma activist Tim Smith received detailed information about the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office’s enlistment of Towery as a “confidential source” to infiltrate the Olympia group and report on its activities. When the Sheriff’s Office recruited Towery, he already was attending group meetings under an assumed name.
Smith, chairman of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Tacoma, received the 133 pages of Tacoma documents after requesting any information it kept related to the use of Towery as a confidential source.
The documents showed that the Sheriff’s Office had collected and stored names, photos, addresses and, in one case, a Social Security number of an anti-war activist.
Drew Hendricks, an OlyPMR member who helped reveal Towery’s identity, said Wednesday that he was disenchanted by the debate surrounding the bill because it doesn’t address “real issues of law enforcement violations of civil rights.”
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If the bill is approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by the end of the week, it likely will be sent to the Ways and Means Committee. It would need a vote by the full Senate before moving to the House.