Calif. Governor Veto Allows Warrantless Cellphone Searches

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(Courtesy of WIRED)

California Gov. Jerry Brown is vetoing legislation requiring police to obtain a court warrant to search the mobile phones of suspects at the time of any arrest.

The Sunday veto means that when police arrest anybody in the Golden State, they may search that person’s mobile phone — which in the digital age likely means the contents of persons’ e-mail, call records, text messages, photos, banking activity, cloud-storage services, and even where the phone has traveled.

Police across the country are given wide latitude to search persons incident to an arrest based on the premise of officer safety. Now the nation’s states are beginning to grapple with the warrantless searches of mobile phones done at the time of an arrest.

Brown’s veto message abdicated responsibility for protecting the rights of Californians and ignored calls from civil liberties groups and this publication to sign the bill — saying only that the issue is too complicated for him to make a decision about. He cites a recent California Supreme Court decision upholding the warrantless searches of people incident to an arrest. In his brief message, he also doesn’t say whether it’s a good idea or not.

Instead, he says the state Supreme Court’s decision is good enough, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court let stand last week.

“The courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizure protections,” the governor wrote.

Because of that January ruling from the state’s high court, the California Legislature passed legislation to undo it — meaning Brown is taking the side of the Supreme Court’s seven justices instead of the state Legislature. The Assembly approved the bill 70-0 and the state Senate, 32-4.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), was flummoxed by Brown’s action. “It was a curious veto message suggesting that the courts could resolve this more effectively than the state Legislature,” he said in a telephone interview.

Under California statehouse rules, neither Leno nor any other lawmaker may introduce the legislation for at least a year.

Orin Kerr, one of the nation’s leading Fourth Amendment experts, said Brown should have backed the state’s Legislature. “I think Governor Brown has it exactly backwards. It is very difficult for courts to decide Fourth Amendment cases involving developing technologies like cellphones,” he said.

In 2007, there were 332,000 felony arrests in California alone — a third of which did not result in conviction.

Brown’s veto also shores up support with police unions and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a police union that opposed the legislation and recently donated $38,900 to Brown’s campaign coffers. “Restricting the authority of a peace officer to search an arrestee unduly restricts their ability to apply the law, fight crime, discover evidence valuable to an investigation and protect the citizens of California,” the association said in a message.

That support would be key if Brown decides to seek a second term.

In the last year alone, at least seven police unions donated more than $12,900 each to Brown. Those unions, including the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, had given Brown more than $160,000 in combined contributions.

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