05/08/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

States Pass Smartphone 'Kill Switch' Bills That Wireless Companies Hate


NEW YORK -- California and Minnesota took steps on Thursday toward becoming the first states in the country to pass laws requiring smartphones to feature stronger anti-theft technology.

The California Senate approved a measure Thursday that would require every smartphone sold in that state to include a so-called kill switch that allows victims of theft to disable a stolen device. The bill passed despite strong opposition from the wireless industry, which said such legislation was "unnecessary" and would "stifle innovation."

The California bill, introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno, needed 21 votes to pass and received 25. The bill fines retailers between $500 and $2,500 for selling smartphones without a kill switch. The vote came two weeks after the California Senate initially rejected the legislation, with lawmakers expressing concern that such regulation would drive away business.

But Leno made certain accommodations via several amendments to the bill, such as excluding tablets from the requirement and extending the deadline to July 2015. Those changes led to Apple and Microsoft, as well as several lawmakers, dropping their opposition to the bill.

On the Senate floor, Leno called the bill "a solution to a crime wave sweeping our state."

"We're trying to keep our constituents safe on our streets and in our neighborhoods," he said.

The Minnesota House of Representatives, meanwhile, also passed a similar bill on Thursday, requiring smartphones and tablets sold in that state after July 1, 2015, to feature a kill switch. The legislation passed with 73 votes in favor and 58 opposed. A version of the bill overwhelmingly passed the Minnesota Senate earlier this month.

The passage of the bills in both states is a victory for law enforcement officials who have been pressing the industry to introduce new technology to reduce the rising number of smartphone thefts nationwide. About 3.1 million phones were stolen in the U.S. in 2013, nearly double the number of thefts from the previous year, according to Consumer Reports.

Law enforcement officials say a universal kill switch could virtually eliminate phone thefts because criminals would no longer have an incentive to steal them.

But Jamie Hastings, a spokesperson for the CTIA, a wireless industry group, said phone companies have already taken steps to protect consumers from theft through a stolen phone database and voluntarily committing last month to offer free anti-theft features on all phones made after July 2015.

"State-by-state technology mandates stifle innovation to the ultimate detriment to the consumer," Hastings said in a statement.

The industry's voluntary commitment, however, fell short of law enforcement officials' demands for a kill switch that is activated automatically on every phone and doesn't require users to opt in. The California bill would require consumers to shut off the feature themselves if they choose.

The California bill still needs to be approved by the state's other legislative chamber before it can be signed by the governor. The Minnesota bill likewise faces a final vote in the state Senate before it heads to the governor's desk.