AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine would become the first state to require law enforcement to obtain a warrant for tracking the location of cellphones under a measure that passed through the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The House’s action followed a previous Senate vote by overturning a committee recommendation on the issue of cellphone privacy. LD 415, An Act to Require a Warrant to Obtain the Location Information of a Cell Phone or Other Electronic Device, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, was the subject of hours of work by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee before receiving an 8-5 ought not to pass recommendation.

If enacted, the measure would require a warrant as opposed to an easier-to-get court order for law enforcement agencies to track the location of cellphones or other GPS-enabled devices, with the exception of emergency situations or the most urgent criminal investigations. In those cases, according to the proposal, law enforcement agencies would be required to notify the device’s owner within three days, with extensions up to 180 days, that their location information had been tracked.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and law enforcement officials opposed the bill. Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a lawyer, argued that the bill would establish new privacy precedents in Maine.

“This goes against long-standing federal and state practices,” Priest said during floor debate Wednesday evening. “When law enforcement begins an investigation, they might not have enough information for a warrant. There is no need for this bill.”

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, said that laws like this one are becoming more necessary as technology makes more private information collectable.

“This information is powerful,” said Carey. “The fact it’s powerful increases the value of privacy so much more. Absent a warrant, such information is not the business of government.”

Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, called the bill a sensible proposal that provides needed oversight.

“Given how sensitive this information can be, judicial oversight is necessary,” said Jones.

But some lawmakers, including Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said the bill creates too great a burden for police investigators, possibly jeopardizing public safety.

“We’re going to hinder law enforcement to the point that criminals will get away,” said Crockett. “This is a serious hindrance to the investigative process.”

The House rejected the ought not to pass recommendation by a vote of 113-28, making way for a vote to enact the bill. The Senate, which voted 20-15 to support the bill, will take up final action on the bill in the coming days, though the bill’s fiscal note of about $234,000 during the next two years might lead to its demise unless the Legislature can find funding.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine hailed the House and Senate votes as “historic.”

“With this historic vote, Maine’s representatives recognized that Mainers care deeply about their privacy and want to bring our laws up to speed with advancing technology,” said Shenna Bellows, the organization’s executive director, in a prepared statement. “Today’s vote brings us one step closer to putting necessary privacy protections in place while allowing the police to protect our communities.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.