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News Link • Privacy Rights

Governor Brown Vetoes Warrant Protection for Cell Phones

• Electronic Frontier Foundation

For the past six months, EFF has strongly supported SB 914, a bill recently passed by the California state legislature that would require police officers to get a warrant before searching through an arrested suspect’s cell phone.

Last month, the bill received overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans, passing the California State Assembly 70-0 and then the State Senate, 32-4. Despite such strong bipartisan support, Governor Brown disappointingly vetoed the bill (PDF) yesterday.

SB 914, written in response to the California Supreme Court decision in People v. Diaz, upheld basic constitutional principles. It just maintained Fourth Amendment protection to the contents of cell phones, requiring officers to show a judge there is probable cause that the phone has evidence of a crime before it is searched incident to arrest.

The bill was strongly opposed by law enforcement groups, yet SB 914’s effect on the police’s ability to do its job would be almost non-existent. As we pointed out in May, “cell phones pose no danger to the police, the threat of destruction of evidence can be easily remedied through simple preservation methods, and many arrests do not result in criminal prosecution at all.”

Privacy rights, however, will now take a major hit thanks to Gov. Brown’s veto.

As we warned when the bill was up for a vote, “Without SB 914, officers can use a pretextual arrest to casually browse the data on a person's cell phone for any reason, even if that person is never charged with a crime.” Smart phones, of course, contain a wealth of personal information, far beyond just call logs and address books. They store text messages, emails, photo albums, Internet browsing history and GPS location technology – and police will have unfettered access to all of it, even if they don’t suspect there is any evidence of a crime on the device.


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