1st Amendment doesn’t afford criminals right to break laws anonymously

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We recently introduced a bill to fight terrorism and crime by requiring purchasers of pre-paid cell phones to show their ID.

Under current law, anyone can purchase a pre-paid cell phone without showing ID. The lack of an ID requirement makes those phones largely untraceable: If the police find out a particular phone was used to help commit a crime, they have no way to connect the phone to a person.

The bad guys know this. Pre-paid phones are often used by drug dealers, corporate criminals, kidnappers and even terrorists. The recent Times Square Bomber, Faisal Shahzad, used a pre-paid phone in planning his attack. So did the terrorists behind the Madrid train bombings and 9/11.

Our bill will fix the problem by requiring purchasers to verify their name, address, and date of birth when they buy a pre-paid phone. Phone sellers will record that information with the identifying information of sold phones, passing their records to wireless carriers for storage under strict privacy protections. Importantly, our bill will place no fees or contractual obligations on phone purchasers or sellers.

In practice, our bill will request less information from pre-paid phone purchasers than phone companies currently collect from landline and post-paid customers. But the identifying information requested by the bill will help solve serious crimes and may help stop a future terrorist attack on innocent Americans.

Some critics of our bill suggest it may violate the First Amendment. That is wrong. The First Amendment protects individuals from having to disclose their identity in order to speak. It does not give individuals the right to remain anonymous when committing a crime. Our bill doesn’t stop anyone from buying a pre-paid cell phone, and it doesn’t limit how people use their phones. All it does is make sure the police can obtain a court order from a judge to find out who bought a phone when that phone is used in a crime.

Other critics claim that our bill won’t work because bad actors will use fake IDs or straw purchasers to hide their identity. We disagree. Our bill bans the unauthorized resale of pre-paid phones and outlaws the use of fake identification to buy a pre-paid phone. Should a criminal enlist the help of a straw purchaser, under our bill, police would at least have access to a valid name and paper trail to follow. As it stands, they have neither. This process isn’t perfect, but it’s a real start.

By requiring pre-paid cell phone purchasers to provide just a small amount of identifying information, we can close a major law enforcement blind spot and make our nation safer. We believe this is good policy. We look forward to our bill becoming law.