Bill would expand police access to private records in missing persons cases

By: - March 21, 2022 3:27 pm

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – FEBRUARY 02: A New Jersey State Police trooper looks on during Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

State lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would allow state police investigating missing persons and human trafficking cases to access — without consent — someone’s cellphone records, medical records, and other private information.

Current law requires a crime to have been committed for investigators to access such records. The new legislation, sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), would create “a rebuttable presumption of criminal activity” in high-risk cases so investigators in the New Jersey State Police’s missing persons and human trafficking unit could bypass that requirement. The unit investigates and maintains data on all missing persons and unidentified bodies in the state.

Law enforcement officers who testified before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee Monday in support of the bill said they often lose investigatory leads and evidence when they can’t access these records quickly.

“Our enemy is time. As soon as that person is reported missing, we want to get cellphone records, so that we could find that person faster,” said Stephen Urbanski of the New Jersey State Police and the Superior Officers Association.

Some committee members said they worry the bill would violate privacy rights. Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), a longtime defense attorney, warned lifting the requirement for criminality to expand investigators’ access to people’s private records without consent could be seen as governmental overreach and intrusion.

Still, the committee — Gill included — agreed unanimously to advance the bill.

“We need to err on the side of giving you the tools to move quickly and save lives. But I do share concerns about whenever we lower the standards of when government can access people’s records,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).

Greenstein chairs the committee.

Urbanski and Joseph Remy of the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office assured committee members there are privacy protections built into the bill.

Investigators would have to consult with their county prosecutor’s office or the criminal justice division of the state Attorney General’s Office before accessing records, and those agencies would have to secure needed subpoenas and court orders. Investigatory records are not public records, so phone, medical, and other records investigators access would not be shared publicly, Urbanski and Remy added.

The bill doesn’t define what a high-risk case is, but Greenstein’s office said it’s where “circumstances in which they are missing indicate to be involuntary, if they have been missing for more than 30 days, and if the person is missing under known dangerous circumstances.”

The bill would be most useful in cases where investigators suspect foul play or self-harm, Urbanski added.

“It’s not going to be every single missing persons case, like, ‘My son didn’t get off the school bus today,’” he said.

“Sadly, the most common outcome in many of these missing persons cases is that when they do actually locate the missing person, they are found dead. And when a crime is suspected, we’re already behind the eight ball, because investigative leads, especially in a digital age, are gone in 90 or 180 days,” Remy said. “Had that person been found earlier, perhaps they would not have met their demise, and they would have received help that would have allowed them to be productive New Jerseyans or productive visitors or tourists in our communities. This bill resolves that issue.”

There currently are about 90 people on New Jersey’s missing persons list, dating back to 1962.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.