Urging Gov. Brown to sign SB 914
September 22, 2011
OPINION By PETER SCHEER
Sitting on Governor Brown’s desk right now is SB 914, a First Amendment Coalition-sponsored bill that would restrict warrantless police searches of citizens’ cellphones. I am writing to ask you to join us in urging the Governor to sign this important safeguard of personal privacy and free speech rights.
You can read and sign the petition on the First Amendment Coalition’s website.
Why is SB 914 needed?
Imagine you are observing a demonstration and are swept up in a mass arrest of protesters. You could be a journalist, a blogger, or just an unlucky passerby. Under current law, police can seize your cell phone and, without any explanation or reason at all, search through all the megabytes of information stored there, no matter how confidential, sensitive or private.
That is the thrust of a California Supreme Court ruling, People v. Diaz, issued earlier this year. Interpreting federal legal precedents, the Court analogized a police search of a cell phone to a police search of a pack of cigarettes. But, of course, that ignores the uniquely intrusive nature of coerced disclosure, through a cell phone search, of emails, contacts, notes, photos, calendars, articles and other files comprising the digital details of one’s personal and business life.
SB 914 (text of bill), based on California state law, will reverse People v. Diaz by requiring police, following an arrest, to obtain a search warrant to search an individual’s cellphone (or other “portable electronic device”)–just as the police would have to do for a search of files located in your office desk or your bedroom. A warrant requirement assures that searches of such intrusiveness will be subject to judicial supervision.
This will not unduly hamper police work. Under SB 914, police would have authority to hold a suspect’s cell phone, protecting against the deletion of files, while they arrange for a search warrant. And in genuine emergencies police would have the power to search a cell phone immediately, without a warrant (what lawyers refer to as “exigent circumstances”).
SB 914, introduced by Senator Leno (D-San Francisco), is not a “liberal” bill or a “conservative” bill. Sponsored by California Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the ACLU–in addition to the First Amendment Coalition–SB 914 was enacted with bipartisan majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. Nonetheless, you will not be shocked to learn that law enforcement interests oppose SB 914.
Their oversized clout in Sacramento is presumably why Governor Brown remains officially undecided.
That’s why I am asking you to let Governor Brown know today that you want him to sign SB 914. Please take a minute now to sign the First Amendment Coalition’s petition.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition (FAC). The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FAC Board of Directors.