House debate pits property rights against public safety

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A legislative battle pitting private property rights against law enforcement’s ability to protect the public unfolded Thursday over a bill that would limit surveillance on private property.

Law enforcement agencies on Thursday told lawmakers that they would be hobbled by the proposal backed by two Republican lawmakers who are seeking to protect Kansans from unwanted intrusions on their property.

The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Ken Corbet and Sen. Caryn Tyson would bar law enforcement officers from the state wildlife and parks department – and county weed officers – from undertaking surveillance on private property without a warrant.

The bill also would keep all law enforcement agencies from into entering agreements with an owner or operator of a utility pole to install a tracking device in order to conduct surveillance on private property without a warrant.

“This is such an important bill,” Tyson said told the House Federal and State Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Caryn Tyson

“Our founding fathers, they were about property rights,” she said. “Not only were they about the right for being able to sell and purchase property, they were about the right of restrictions of who has access to our lands.

“It’s a sad day in America when we have to write legislation and laws to restrict who can come on our property,” she said. “We should be able to do that by default, but here we are today, instead, defending our rights as property owners.”

Law enforcement didn’t quite see it the same way.

“We believe the spirit of this bill is to limit the abilities of a law enforcement agency in conducting surveillance that is criminal in nature,” said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter, who represented the Kansas Sheriff’s Association.

Law enforcement agencies said the bill would keep them from searching for missing persons, looking for drug houses as well as rooting out illegal waste dumping, poaching and cattle rustling. They said it would limit the state’s abillity to enforce wildlife laws.

“Surveillance has been a key factor in providing credible evidence in homicide, robbery, human trafficking investigations along with a variety of other criminal investigations,” Easter told the House Federal an State Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Corbet said the bill is only intended to be what he described as a caution sign for law enforcement and secure Kansans’ 4th Amendment constitutional right to be free from unauthorized searches and seizures.

“Surveillance is a big thing right now. This bill kind of takes care of that,” Corbet said. “Kansans have the right to know who’s coming on their property and when.”

Corbet’s bill had support from the legal arm of the conservative-leaning Kansas Policy Institute and the more liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union.

Kendall Seal, director of Advocacy for the ACLU of Kansas, called the bill “a positive step to protect Kansans from unwarranted surveillance and invasions of privacy…”

“Government surveillance and monitoring by Kansas law enforcement agencies has the potential to erode Kansans’ First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment Rights,” Seal told the committee in written testimony.

“When used indiscriminately, surveillance technologies can create oppressive, stigmatizing
environments, especially for often-marginalized communities that are disproportionately targeted by their use,” he said.

The bill drew similar support from the Kansas Justice Institute, which is part of the free-market oriented Kansas Policy Institute.

Sam MacRoberts

Sam MacRoberts, litigation director for the Justice Institute, said the bill would be an “admirable start” to providing  Kansan with “robust protections from warrantless governmental intrusions.”

Lenexa Police Chief Dawn Layman told the committee in written testimony that the city has been using cameras on utility poles in different applications for at least the last 27 years.

Opposed to the bill, Layman said the bill would hamstring law enforcement’s ability to protect the general public

“As technology has grown so has our use,” Layman said.

“We use this technology on a daily basis to apprehend criminals, reconstruct accidents and more importantly we use it as a tool to protect the lives of our officers and the citizens of our community.

“Multiple law enforcement agencies across the state would be adversely affected by this legislation.”