ABFFE Supports Maryland Bookstore Privacy Bill

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The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) spoke out in favor of the privacy of bookstore customer records in a February 26 hearing before the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee. State legislation was introduced earlier this month that would limit the circumstances in which police can seek search warrants or subpoenas for purchase records.

"The growing number of subpoenas and search warrants issued to bookstores for the purpose of discovering what people are reading makes it imperative that we increase the protections for book purchase records," ABFFE President Chris Finan said. "If bookstore customers fear that the police can easily discover what they are reading, they will not feel free to buy the books they want and need."

Finan joined Alicia Green, the marketing director of Olsson’s Books and Music, which has stores in Washington, D.C.; Bethesda, Maryland; and northern Virginia, in testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee on House Bill 897.

Introduced by Delegate Samuel Rosenberg of Baltimore, the proposed legislation would limit the circumstances in which police can seek search warrants or subpoenas for bookstore purchase records. If enacted, search warrants could be issued only in very rare cases, while subpoenas would normally be approved only after a court hearing at which the person whose records are being sought, and the bookseller who holds them, have an opportunity to oppose the request.

The legislation provides a four-part test for granting a subpoena, including a requirement that "the purposes of the investigation cannot be achieved by alternative investigative methods or sources that do not require disclosure of the information sought."

Also supporting H.B. 897 in testimony at the hearing were Delegate Rosenberg and Tom Saquella of the Maryland Retail Association.

Finan stressed to BTW that booksellers are not seeking immunity for bookstore records. "We understand that there will be cases in which bookstore records are the only way to solve a crime," he said. "What we are trying to stop is a growing tendency on the part of police to seek bookstore records as a routine part of their investigation. We think bookstore records should be sought only when there is no other way to advance the case."

There have been four cases in the last two years in which police have obtained search warrants or subpoenas for bookstore records. Three of these cases were resolved without turning over the information the police were demanding. The fourth case involves the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, which is fighting a judge’s order to surrender information. In December, the Colorado Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case.