Government & Politics

Kelsey Smith’s parents watched with hope, but bill named for slain daughter was doomed in Congress

Parents behind Kelsey Smith Act react to bill’s rejection in Congress

Missey and Greg Smith of Overland Park, Kan., discuss the U.S. House’s failure to pass the Kelsey Smith Act, a bill named after their daughter who was abducted and murdered in 2007. The couple traveled to Washington, D.C., for the May 23 vote, thi
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Missey and Greg Smith of Overland Park, Kan., discuss the U.S. House’s failure to pass the Kelsey Smith Act, a bill named after their daughter who was abducted and murdered in 2007. The couple traveled to Washington, D.C., for the May 23 vote, thi

From her seat in the visitors gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives, Missey Smith could see a poster-size photograph of her murdered daughter, propped up on an easel.

Missey and her husband, Kansas Sen. Greg Smith, had traveled to Washington from their home in Overland Park, hoping to watch federal legislation they’d championed in 18-year-old Kelsey’s memory sail through the House.

“I started crying,” Missey Smith said. “Having her picture down on the floor is what got to me, and just knowing that she really is going to make it happen.”

As the Smiths tallied up the votes from their seats in the House visitors gallery, they realized the bill wasn’t going to pass.

But as the Smiths watched lawmakers cast their votes the evening of May 23, the couple realized that the bill wasn’t going to pass.

It had gone from sure bet to failure in a matter of hours, blindsiding GOP leadership and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, the Kansas Republican who had sponsored the legislation and invited the Smiths to watch the vote.

The behind-the-scenes story of what happened that day, pieced together from interviews with lawmakers and staff on both sides of the aisle, is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of Washington’s dysfunctional legislative process.

Only a page and a half long, the Kelsey Smith Act would have made it easier for police to pinpoint a missing person’s location using cellphone coordinates.

It had emotional pull. It had a history of bipartisan support. Republican leadership expected it to pass by a wide margin. And yet it lost at the eleventh hour, doomed by poor communication, political power struggles and a last-minute lobbying push from civil liberties groups on both the left and right.

The Smiths say they aren’t bitter.

“I think, if anything, it just added to our resolve,” said Greg Smith.

An agonizing search

Kelsey Smith had just graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School when she was kidnapped from a Target parking lot in Overland Park on June 2, 2007. Surveillance cameras captured images of her attacker as he stalked her in the store, followed her to her parking space and shoved her into her car.

When Kelsey’s frantic parents called her cellular provider, Verizon, to try to find her, they got little help. Over the next few days, family, police and the district attorney’s office tried with no better luck, Missey Smith said.

Four agonizing days went by before Verizon turned over the missing teen’s cellphone coordinates. Police found Kelsey’s body 45 minutes later.

She had been sexually assaulted and strangled by Edwin R. Hall of Olathe, who pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping, rape, sodomy and capital murder in 2008.

After Kelsey’s death, her mother asked Verizon to investigate why it had taken so long to release her daughter’s cell coordinates. The company reported that their procedures were adequate, Missey Smith said.

“I turned to my husband and said, ‘We have to change this,’ ” she said.

This is not the NSA or Big Brother trying to find out what you’re doing or anything like that.

Kansas Sen. Greg Smith, father of Kelsey Smith

The grieving parents helped draft the Kelsey Smith Act, requiring cellular carriers to disclose a customer’s cell location information promptly to police in a life-or-death emergency.

Versions of the law already have passed in 22 states, including Kansas and Missouri.

But Yoder and the Smiths thought the country needed a national version of the Kelsey Smith Act. They were convinced it would help law enforcement and crime victims across the country.

The issue was personal for Yoder.

“I remember like it was yesterday when Kelsey Smith was missing and I saw, as we all did in our community, the tragedy unfold for four days when the Smith family could not find their lost daughter,” Yoder said in an interview.

It seemed like a no-brainer to Yoder: a bill that could circumvent Capitol Hill’s usual turf wars to win support from a vast majority of the House.

That isn’t how it turned out.

A late-night call

Nathan Leamer, a senior policy analyst for the R Street Institute, a conservative research center in Washington, was driving home on Sunday, May 22, the night before the Kelsey Smith Act was scheduled for a vote, when his cellphone rang.

The caller was a Republican lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee. Members of the panel were angry they didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the bill’s constitutionality, Leamer was told.

Maybe he should take a closer look at the measure.

“He asked me, ‘What would prevent a police officer from spying on their wife with this legislation? They wouldn’t even need a warrant.’ 

The gears started shifting in my head about how we were going to fight this.

Nathan Leamer, R Street Institute, a conservative research center

Leamer pulled over to the side of the road and scanned the text of the bill on his phone. To his surprise, something was missing.

An earlier version, passed by the committee last year, required authorities to provide a sworn statement that someone risked death or bodily harm before obtaining the location data. It also required them to seek a court order within 48 hours of requesting someone’s cell coordinates.

Both protections had been removed from the bill headed to the floor the next day.

The changes had been made, congressional aides say, because law enforcement authorities in some members’ districts thought the rules were too restrictive.

“The gears started shifting in my head about how we were going to fight this,” Leamer said.

But he would have to act quickly.

Republican leadership had fast-tracked the bill in a legislative maneuver known as “suspension of the rules,” a move usually reserved for uncontroversial pieces of legislation such as naming post offices. Under suspension, a bill needs a two-thirds vote to pass and amendments are prohibited.

It’s rare for legislation to fail under suspension.

“The idea was, hey, this is a layup,” said one Republican aide who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, lacking the authority to speak publicly.

That calculus didn’t take into account growing conservative and liberal opposition to the measure.

The next morning, Leamer’s organization blasted out an alert by email, urging a “no” vote. The American Civil Liberties Union fired off a similar letter.

Both organizations, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital liberties group, began bombarding lawmakers’ offices with phone calls.

By the time Kelsey’s photo went up in the House chamber that afternoon, it had become clear to Yoder, the bill’s sponsor, that the bill was in jeopardy.

‘Let this legislation come forward’

Democrat John Sarbanes of Maryland took the floor to warn that many members of his party couldn’t support an effort to force the bill through without what he called common-sense amendments to protect privacy.

“These protections would not have in any way slowed law enforcement’s ability to find people in an emergency,” Sarbanes said.

Yoder shot back with an impassioned speech arguing that privacy concerns about the bill were overblown.

The Kelsey Smith Act, he said, does not give police access to the content of text messages or emails or GPS tracking or anything other than a phone’s location, and only in cases of emergency.

I promise you it’s popular in your district. I promise you the majority of Americans will support this. And opposing this bill is wrong and shameful.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, Kansas Republican, in House floor plea

Kelsey’s parents were in the gallery, he reminded colleagues. He asked lawmakers to put themselves in the Smiths’ shoes and imagine what they’d want if their own children had been abducted.

“Let this legislation come forward,” Yoder said. “I promise you it’s popular in your district. I promise you the majority of Americans will support this. And opposing this bill is wrong and shameful.”

But R Street’s Leamer, who had counted the votes, knew the bill would fall short. He urged House leadership to pull it from the floor, to no avail.

The final vote was 229-158, with 46 lawmakers not voting. The bill needed 290 votes to pass.

A majority of Democrats voted no, but so did 50 Republicans. Nineteen Republicans didn’t vote at all, including U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a far-right conservative from Kansas who leads the House Tea Party Caucus.

Yoder said he’d been surprised and disappointed by the bill’s defeat. He said he’d known he would lose some Republican support, but not that he’d lose so many Democratic votes.

“I guess if people vote yes in a committee and a week later they vote no, you have to keep asking people if they’re going to vote yes every single day,” the congressman said, his frustration still evident days later. “I guess that’s all you could do differently.”

A doomed bill

Democrats, however, said they’d made their opposition clear all along, in public statements during committee meetings and in discussions with Republican staff and leadership.

Without a chance to add the protections back to the bill — a chance precluded by using the suspension procedure — the measure was doomed.

This is not the NSA or Big Brother trying to find out what you’re doing or anything like that.

Kansas Sen. Greg Smith, father of Kelsey Smith

The disagreement over civil liberties protections hasn’t gone away.

Yoder and the Smiths said they remained strongly opposed to amendments that might make it harder for local law enforcement to do its job. Civil liberties groups say those protections are essential before the bill becomes a federal law.

The House defeat might prove to be a setback for the bill in the Senate, since party leaders there won’t want to risk a repeat of that vote.

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and I understand legislation takes time.

Missey Smith, mother of Kelsey Smith

But Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who is the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, said he was confident he’d be able to move the bill forward. His office is working to bring a Democratic co-sponsor on board and add language to address the concerns of civil liberties groups before the Kelsey Smith Act gets a vote in the Senate Commerce Committee next week.

“If I have to make another trip to Washington, I will make another trip,” Missey Smith said. “I’m not going to get angry. That’s not going to do any good. You just have to explain to folks what it really means and what it really does to get them to change their minds.”

With that in mind, she and her husband plan to write thank you notes to all 435 House members for considering the bill — those who voted for it and those who opposed it.

Her feisty daughter Kelsey, she imagines, would not have been quite so diplomatic.

“If this had been one of us, she would have been fighting harder. She would have been more vocal than we are,” Missey Smith said with a laugh. “And she would not have been as pleasant about the defeat in D.C. She would probably have been kicking some butts.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingKC

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