IJ Opens Texas Chapter With Challenge to Computer Repair Law

August 1, 2008

In front of a bank of television cameras and radio microphones, the new Institute for Justice Texas Chapter (IJ-TX) opened for business with a challenge to a Texas law requiring computer repair shops to obtain a private investigator’s license to analyze their customers’ data. According to the government, the law covers any type of data analysis that looks into the “conduct of persons” or the “causes of events.” This definition encompasses everything from parents seeking to know whom their child has been chatting with online to a technician informing a business owner that her computer was infected by a virus when an employee visited prohibited websites.

Practicing without a government-mandated license is punishable by criminal penalties of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, in addition to civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. Worse, consumers face those same penalties if they knowingly use an unlicensed repair technician.

The Texas Private Security Board, the state agency charged with enforcing the law, has issued a series of increasingly aggressive interpretations of the new statute. Those interpretations clearly put computer repair shops on notice that performing commonplace data analysis—which is crucial to effectively diagnose and repair computer problems—is a crime.

The law went into effect in September of last year, and the board’s interpretations are laying the groundwork for future enforcement. IJ-TX is working to prevent that from happening by asking a judge to issue an injunction while the case is pending and, ultimately, to strike the law down as an unconstitutional violation of our clients’ right to earn an honest living.

For now, our clients are faced with scaling back much of the work they do in order to comply with the law. Getting a private investigator’s license is no solution because that would require a criminal justice degree or a three-year apprenticeship under a licensed private investigator.

Our clients tell us that this law will send ripples throughout the technology industry in Texas, which is ironic because Texas has made a major push in recent years to grow its tech talent pool.

“There are thousands of computer contractors performing valuable services for almost every organization in Texas, and this law will hinder their ability to remain gainfully employed,” said client Thane Hayhurst, who owns Kiwi Computer and iTalent Consulting in Dallas.

Computer repair shops are everywhere. They represent the friendly, human face of the technology industry, and many Texans rely on them to keep their small businesses and home computer networks running smoothly. And because this law affects consumers as well as technicians, consumer Erle Rawlins also joined in our lawsuit. “This law is totally unfair,” Rawlins said. “It imposes using someone who is more expensive and may not be as good; and it limits the number of competitors who are out there.”

IJ-TX is asking a court to declare that the law violates our clients’ right to practice in their chosen occupation free from unreasonable government interference. This case follows IJ’s other recent economic liberty challenges to Texas’ interior design cartel and veterinarians’ efforts to monopolize the practice of horse teeth filing. The story is the same in each of these cases: A special interest group convinces the legislature to limit competition based on some vague public safety argument, which is completely unsupported by any data.

This case dovetails nicely with many facets of the IJ-TX mission, which is to litigate cases under the Texas and federal constitutions to protect the right of Texans to be secure in their property, speak freely, earn an honest living and make their own choices about their children’s education.

Texas is home to more than 20 million people and has a long history of cherishing individual liberties. But while Texans have been busy living their lives and running their businesses, their government has been encroaching on their freedom from all directions. Reports of eminent domain abuse are coming into our office from across the state. We are investigating each of these cases to determine where and how we can help. Our friends at the Texas Public Policy Foundation have identified a laundry list of occupational licensing schemes that have proliferated in the last five years alone. We will be investigating each of these cases. And we stand ready to defend free speech and school choice wherever they are assailed in the Lone Star State.

We are already seeing signs of success in our computer repair case. When the media inquiries came rolling in on launch day, the bureaucrats started backpedaling like a playground bully who got caught by the teacher. That is good news for IJ’s clients, but our fight is far from over. We will not rest until the entrepreneurs we represent in this case, and all such businesses, are once and for all free from the shackles of big government.

Matt Miller is the executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter.

Institute for Justice staff and attorneys stand with their computer repair clients on the steps of the Travis County Courthouse.

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