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Brown vetoes bill limiting cellphone searches by police

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed SB 914, a bill sponsored by the First Amendment Coalition that would have required police to get a warrant before searching through the smart phones and other electronic devices of people they arrest.

The bill would have overridden a recent California Supreme Court decision allowing warrantless searches of cellphones. Interpreting federal law, the Court ruled that in a search “incident to arrest,” police can treat the files on a suspect’s cellphone the same as the contents of his pockets or a cigarette pack in his possession.

But that reasoning, of course, ignores the fact that cellphones contain sensitive and confidential files, both personal and professional, by the gigabyte. SB 14 was based on the idea that a search of a cellphone is equal in intrusiveness to a search of one’s office desk or bedroom. Just as police must have a warrant to search a desk or bedroom, so they should have to get a warrant to search a cell phone.

In his veto message, Gov. Brown said, “the courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizure protections.”

FAC Executive Director Peter Scheer was critical of Brown’s reasoning. “The courts have already addressed the specific issue of searches of cellphones following arrest. The California Supreme Court’s decision is the final word, not the beginning of a judicial debate.”

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