California tries again to outlaw warrantless cellphone searches

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 9/7/2012

The California Legislature has again forwarded a bill to the governor to prohibit police from searching cellphones, or other devices, in certain instances without a warrant.

A year ago Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill citing a January 2011 state Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement officers, without a warrant, can search the contents of a cellphone confiscated from anyone under arrest.

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

Brown said in a veto statement that the decision should be left to the courts.

About three months after Brown’s remarks, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue. Justices ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional for police to install and use a GPS device to monitor a vehicle’s movements without a warrant.

Armed with the decision from the nation’s top court, California lawmakers went back to work early this year to pass a bill to clarify that officers must first obtain a search warrant when there is probable cause to believe a suspect’s phone contains evidence of a crime.

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

“This bill strikes a perfect balance, safeguarding Californians against improper government intrusion while ensuring that law enforcement officials can utilize this technology when necessary to protect public safety,” Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said in a statement.

The bill – SB1434 – also covers time limits on monitoring vehicles. Specifically, it limits search warrants to up to 30 days.

An exception would be permitted in cases of emergency, ongoing criminal activity, and when the owner or user gives consent.

Brown’s administration has not indicated how the governor will act on the matter.

To view other legislative activities of interest for California, click here.

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