California nears restrictions on warrantless searches

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 9/1/2015

A bill nearing passage in the California statehouse would prohibit police from searching cellphones, or other devices, in some instances without a warrant.

The full Assembly could soon take up for consideration a bill to require law enforcement agencies to get warrants before accessing information that includes emails, text messages and GPS data. If approved there, SB178 would return to the Senate for consideration of changes before heading to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed similar efforts in previous sessions citing a January 2011 California Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement officers, without a warrant, can search the contents of a cellphone confiscated from anyone under arrest.

The state Supreme Court majority ruled that individuals under arrest lose their right of privacy in anything they are carrying when taken into custody.

Brown said at the time of his previous veto that the decision should be left to the courts.

Advocates are hopeful that changes made to the bill this time around are enough to get the governor’s endorsement.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said it’s time to bring the state’s data privacy laws into the 21st century.

“California’s privacy laws have not kept up with technological advances, as is illustrated by the fact that a letter in your desk drawer at home enjoys more privacy protections than the same letter stored in your email,” Leno said in a press release.

The bill would permit law enforcement to gain access to a mobile device without a warrant when waiting for permission to search could put people at risk. An exception would also be made for instances when the owner or user gives consent.

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

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