California bill would end warrantless cellphone searches

| 7/12/2011

A bill that is nearing passage in the California Legislature would reverse a court ruling that allows police to search cellphones without a warrant.

In January, the state Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers, without a warrant, can search the contents of a cellphone confiscated from anyone under arrest.

The majority of justices said arrestees lose their right of privacy in anything they are carrying when taken into custody.

Shortly after the decision was handed down an effort was introduced at the California statehouse to counter it. The full Assembly could soon vote on a bill to overturn the court’s ruling on warrantless cellphone searches. If approved, the Senate would need to sign off on changes before SB914 advances to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said the bill clarifies that officers must first obtain a search warrant when there is probable cause to believe a suspect’s phone contains evidence of a crime.

“This legislation will help ensure that a simple arrest – which may or may not lead to criminal charges – is not used as a fishing expedition to obtain a person’s confidential information,” Leno said in a statement.

He said the privacy safeguards are critical as technology advances and cellphones become much more than simple devices to make phone calls.

In hopes of appeasing law enforcement, Leno amended the bill to continue to allow officers to search cellphones without a warrant when there is an immediate threat to public safety or the arresting officer.

The bill’s analysis reports that the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that cellphone searches require a warrant. In addition, federal law enforcement agencies also abide by the warrant protocol.

Leno wrote his bill “simply restores these critical privacy safeguards.”

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