Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

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Sun Editorial:

Constitutional concern

Legislature should reject warrantless seizures of money from prepaid debit cards

The use of prepaid debit cards has gradually expanded from gift purchases to cash withdrawals from automated teller machines and payroll disbursements to employees. Prepaid cards can also be tied to cell phones, enabling the technically savvy to transfer funds from one account to another.

Law enforcement agencies in Nevada are worried that some of those savvy folks are drug dealers, terrorists or other bad guys who are using the debit cards to transact illicit business, including money laundering. A bill sponsored by the Nevada Technology Crime Advisory Board, which is headed by Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and whose members include Metro Police and the FBI, attempts to address those concerns by giving the agencies greater tools to fight cybercriminals.

But one problematic aspect of Senate Bill 82, now before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, is that it would allow law enforcement to seize balances on prepaid cards without a search warrant. As the board discussed at a meeting in June, one of the arguments behind this is that suspected criminals could move money electronically before a warrant could be obtained.

We don’t see, though, how SB82 can possibly meet the standards of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which affords Americans protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Passing the bill as written could set a dangerous precedent for other warrantless seizures, which are generally allowed in emergency situations only.

The Associated Press, in a story about Thursday’s initial legislative hearing on the bill, wrote about the objections to the bill lodged by the American Civil Liberties Union and by public defenders from Clark and Washoe counties.

“Obtaining a warrant isn’t that difficult,” ACLU of Nevada attorney Lee Rowland said. “In reality, a magistrate can usually be reached anywhere between 20 minutes and two hours.”

Granted, law enforcement agencies face challenges as cybercriminals become more technologically sophisticated. But the Nevada Legislature should not bend constitutional safeguards when considering crime-fighting measures.

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