A bill that would have placed restrictions on the ability of local law enforcement officials in California to interrupt cellular service was vetoed Saturday, Sept. 29, by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Authored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, SB 1160 would have extended to cellular networks the California law that requires a court order to interrupt or shut down land-based telephone service. The new legislation was a response to the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency (BART) taking its mobile service offline during public protests in August 2011.
In his veto message, Gov. Brown lauded Padilla’s efforts to authorize the shutdown of mobile networks only in extreme cases. However, Brown said requiring law enforcement personnel to make specific findings and determinations within a six-hour window could take attention away from resolving a threat.
Brown encouraged lawmakers to re-write the bill in a way that balances protection of speech with the ability of law enforcement to use mobile service shut down as a tool to protect the public.
In December BART’s board of directors adopted its own policy of allowing interruption of telecommunications services under certain circumstances. The agency had worked with Padilla’s office and supported SB 1160.
In an email to Government Technology, James Allison, spokesman for BART, said the agency understands and appreciates Brown’s attention to the bill.
"BART will continue to work closely with state lawmakers in the future on legislation to set a statewide policy for telecommunication interruptions in times of emergencies,” Allison said. “In the meantime, the policy the BART Board passed in December remains in effect. As always, BART's number one priority is the safety of our passengers."
In late August when SB 1160 was first sent to Brown’s desk for consideration, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said it had hoped the governor would sign the bill.
“What BART did clearly violated many peoples’ First Amendment right to speak and receive information,” Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director and digital rights analyst for EFF, told Government Technology at the time. “Sen. Padilla’s bill sends the right message.”
BART turned cell service off at four underground stations on Aug. 11, 2011. BART officials said the temporary shutdown was due to information they had that mobile devices would be used to organize a rush-hour protest over the shooting deaths of two men by BART police.
Turning cell service off created a firestorm of freedom-of-speech claims, including from the activist group “Anonymous.” The group fired back at BART on Aug. 14, 2011, hacking the Mybart.org website and leaking the personal and login information of that website’s users.
The hacking incident was followed by an additional protest, organized by Anonymous on Aug. 15, of about 100 people that caused the shutdown of various BART stations. Anonymous is also alleged to have leaked the personal information of BART police officers.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.