California lawmakers approve restrictions on warrantless searches

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 9/22/2015

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

Senate lawmakers voted 34-4 to sign off on changes to a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to get warrants before accessing information that includes emails, text messages and GPS data included on such devices as smartphones, tablets and laptops. The bill, SB178, now moves to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. The Assembly already approved it on a 57-13 vote.

The governor has vetoed similar efforts in previous sessions 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 at the time 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.

“While technology has advanced exponentially, California’s communications laws are stuck in the Dark Ages, leaving our personal emails, text messages, photos and smartphones increasingly vulnerable to warrantless searches,” Leno said in prepared remarks. “This bill strikes just the right balance to protect privacy, spur innovation and safeguard public safety.”

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.

Major technology companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter support the bill. According to Leno’s office, the state’s technology companies note a significant rise in requests from law enforcement for consumer data.

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

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