The New York Civil Liberties Union today applauded the Suffolk County Legislature for rejecting a bill that would have mandated the creation and maintenance of a prepaid cell phone registry in the county.

The Legislature rejected the bill, I.R. 1266, Tuesday evening by a bipartisan vote of 7 to 11. The NYCLU's Suffolk County Chapter had organized a coalition of more than 30 civil rights, immigrants' rights, labor, social justice, community and interfaith organizations in opposition to the bill.

“By rejecting this deeply flawed proposal, county legislators showed common sense and respect for residents' privacy rights,” said Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU's Suffolk County Chapter. “We all want safe communities, but we shouldn't sacrifice personal liberty for poorly conceived legislation that is far more likely to incriminate the innocent than capture criminals.”

The proposal would have required anyone attempting to purchase a prepaid cell phone to provide two forms of identification – representing an undue and unfair burden on consumers. It would have established a police database to store consumers' personal information, violating personal privacy rights and Fourth Amendment guarantees, and would have compelled retailers to gather and maintain consumers' personal data without any training, guidelines or support. The legislation would have imposed fines of up to $1,000 or a year in jail on business owners who failed to comply with it.

The bill was amended last week to include a subpoena requirement for law enforcement seeking paper or
electronic records directly from retailers. But this requirement was meaningless because police could still have full access, without a subpoena, to consumer records entered into the police database.

In a letter sent Monday to Suffolk County legislators, the NYCLU and its coalition partners argued that the bill erodes personal privacy without a sufficient justification or any protections for consumers or retailers, who are expected to comply without training, support or even consent. The letter maintained that collection of paper or electronic records would upset established Fourth Amendment principles and represents an unjust intrusion of privacy.

The coalition also argued that the bill would have burdened the county's most vulnerable residents, including the poor, the under-employed, and immigrant and minority residents who turn to prepaid phones to maintain contact with family, work and friends. Notably, the bill would have deprived victims of domestic violence of the anonymity that prepaid cellphones offer.