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A Good First Step: California Governor Signs Anti-Surveillance Bill into Law

SACRAMENTO – California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Tuesday originally intended to deny resources to federal agencies engaging in unwarranted and illegal spying. The final version was much narrower in scope, but privacy and civil liberties advocates call the new law something to build on in 2015.

Introduced by Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), the bill enjoyed bipartisan support throughout the legislative process.

As overwhelmingly passed in the California Senate earlier this year, SB828 banned the state from participating in, or providing material support or resources to any federal agency engaged in the “illegal and unconstitutional collection of electronic data or metadata, without consent, of any person not based on a warrant that particularly describes the person, place, and thing to be searched or seized.”

The Senate version passed 29-1 and set the stage to turn of state resources to agencies engaged in illegal spying in 2014.

But the bill ran into some speed bumps in the Assembly. Sources close to OffNow indicate the California Sheriffs Association lobbied heavily behind the scenes in opposition to the bill. An assembly committee ultimately amended the bill to include language that creates an extremely high threshold before the state can take action to refuse cooperation with the NSA or other agencies engaged in illegal spying.

The final version of the bill signed into law by Gov. Brown goes into effect when a federal agency “requests” state assistance in data collection, and requires “actual knowledge that the request constitutes an illegal or unconstitutional collection of electronically stored information.” The legal threshold for “actual knowledge” represents a high hurdle to clear.

“I can’t really think of a scenario in which the bill would have any practical effect,” OffNow executive director Mike Maharrey said. “That’s not to say there isn’t one, but it would become operative only in a very narrow range of circumstances.”

Anderson spokeswoman Carlisle Engelhardt told the US News that the law notably will restrict federal access to state-held voter and driver records.

Lieu praised the governor for signing it.

“I commend Gov. Brown for recognizing that the National Security Agency’s massive and indiscriminate collecting of phone and electronic data on all Americans, including more than 38 million Californians, is a threat to our liberty and freedom,” Lieu said in a statement. “We can only hope the feds halt this illegal and unconstitutional practice nationally.”

Maharrey said OffNow will continue to push for stronger legislation blocking cooperation with unwarranted spying in California.

“We can’t just hope the feds will halt illegal spying. Sen. Frank Church warned us about the danger of the NSA almost 40 years and the feds haven’t done anything to stop it yet,” he said. “But the journey SB828 took gives us something to build on. We know the Sheriffs Association lobbied heavily behind to kill this bill. While version that ultimately signed by Gov. Brown won’t turn off resources in 2014, the 29-1 vote in the Senate approving exactly that tells us we can build on this and overcome the lobbyists in 2015.”

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