Bill requiring warrants for email searches hits magic number in House

A bill to prevent law enforcement officials without warrants from accessing private email accounts is now backed by the majority of the House.

The Email Privacy Act from Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) gained its 218th co-sponsor late on Tuesday, giving the sponsors hope that the bill could move this year.

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“Having a majority of house members supporting our bill shows House leadership that the bill would pass … if it was put on the house floor,” Yoder said in an interview with The Hill.

That is “a critical component” of making the case to leadership to bring the bill to the floor, he continued.

The proposal would update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows law enforcement agencies to access electronic communications that have been stored for 180 days without a warrant.

Critics of the law often note that this 1986 law means emails don’t receive the same Fourth Amendment protections as physical letters stored in filing cabinets, which require a warrant to access.

Yoder said his bill addresses “such a clear issue that has such a simple fix.” 

The sponsors have been talking with House leadership and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) about moving the bill forward, according to Yoder.

“Everyone is very supportive.”

But he noted early signs that other lawmakers have “some interest in attaching additional components” as the bill moves forward, such as a measure that would restrict law enforcement’s access to cellphone location information.

“We’re willing to be flexible in the way it gets brought forward,” Yoder said of his Email Privacy Act, adding that he doesn’t want irrelevant provisions that “slow it down to the point where it doesn’t get done.”

“The more things you add … the more challenging it becomes.”

As they work to bring it to the floor, Yoder and Polis aren’t stopping aren’t stopping at 218 co-sponsors.

“We plan on continuing to add co-sponsors, Democrats and Republicans, to demonstrate the overwhelming popular support for simply updating a law that’s outdated,” Polis told The Hill Tuesday.

The next benchmark is reaching two-thirds of the House, or 290 co-sponsors, which would allow the House to vote on the bill under a suspension of the rules, Yoder said.

The effort is widely supported by the tech industry and privacy advocates, but it faces opposition from federal agencies, which say they rely on subpoenas, not warrants, to get information for their investigations.

Yoder said those agencies are “on an island on this issue” and will have to accept “that they’re treading up against a pretty big wave of momentum to change the law.”

A similar bill in the Senate, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), hasn't moved since it was voted out of Leahy’s committee last year.

But Yoder thinks that might change now that a majority of the House backs the bill.

“I’m hoping that, if we show momentum, it will give them an opportunity to move their legislation forward,” he said.

Yoder said last year’s disclosures about U.S. surveillance programs have helped fuel his cause.

Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden “caused many Americans to be aware of these tactics that the government uses.”

But, he continued, “our issue is much worse than the NSA” because it allows law enforcement officials to get the content of email exchanges without oversight.