When investigators are stumped about where a suspect might live, with whom the suspect resides, or where the suspect works, they often turn to a source that might come as a surprise: city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities.
And it seems to happen pretty frequently. Utilities reports that between Jan. 1 and June 21 of this year, customer records were accessed approximately 5,000 times, all without warrants or subpoenas.
Turns out it's all legal. In fact, it's mandated by law.
While the Colorado Open Records Act prohibits release of "names, addresses, telephone numbers, and personal financial information of past or present users of public utilities," there's an exception for any criminal justice agency "who asserts that the request for information is reasonably related to an investigation within the scope of the agency's authority and duties."
The law defines criminal justice agency broadly, to include any city, county, school district, special district, board of higher learning and law enforcement authority that investigates crime, as well as any agency that provides supervision, evaluation, treatment or other types of oversight of accused persons or criminal offenders.
In the first half of this year, 21 agencies delved into Utilities' customer records, among them the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; city code enforcement; the Drug Enforcement Administration; El Paso County Child Support Services and Department of Human Services; the FBI; Air Force and Army investigators; and the IRS criminal division. Utilities says an investigator accessing multiple months of data for one customer would represent one access, but the 5,000 figure could include multiple accesses for the same person at different times.
Asked what types of things are being investigated, Utilities says in a statement, "Different agencies have different reasons for investigations."
To obtain service, people generally give Utilities the following: name, phone number, service address, mailing address, employer information, reference names, Social Security number, whether there are dogs at the address, and a secondary person's name, phone number and employer information.
Some ratepayers also provide banking information for purposes of automatic withdrawal of utility bill payments, but that's never accessed by third parties, says Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. He adds that agencies aren't given "mass quantities of data in any way."
Utilities also emphasizes that agencies are closely monitored to ensure they're following procedures. For example, most agency reps have to give Utilities employees a password to gain access, although a few local agencies and the DEA can log directly into Utilities' Customer Information System.
Xcel Energy in Denver reports it, too, shares information with law enforcement, but only as a result of a warrant or subpoena. The open-records act doesn't apply to Xcel, which is privately owned.
"It has to be some sort of legal action, a legal obligation," says spokesman Gabriel Romero. Like Utilities, Xcel doesn't advise customers that their records have been accessed. But unlike Utilities, Romero says access is rarely granted.
Springs Utilities' practice strikes Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, as odd, but he adds, "I guess I can't be too troubled about it if it's allowed by law."
Mark Silverstein of the American Civil Liberties Union's Colorado office sees it slightly differently.
"There's a story, even if it's according to law," he says. "People aren't expecting utility accounts to be viewed by all those agencies."
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