California Senate OKs requiring warrants to search smartphones, tablets

The California Senate has approved a measure requiring a warrant or wiretap order to search a person's smartphone or tablet.

The California Senate has approved a measure requiring a warrant or wiretap order to search a person’s smartphone or tablet.

(Rob Daly / Getty Images)

The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would require law enforcement in California to obtain a search warrant or wiretap order before searching a person’s smartphone, laptop or other electronic device or accessing information stored on remote servers.

The bill, by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), also would protect locational information stored on smartphones and other devices unless police officers show probable cause to a judge.

“What the bill does is brings our state statute into the 21st century to catch up with technology with regards to privacy,” Leno told his colleagues. “Of course law enforcement needs a warrant before it can go into your mailbox and read your mail, but it does not currently need a warrant to read your emails or text communications or other electronic communications.”


The measure is supported by tech companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter as a way to clarify what their obligation is regarding providing information to law enforcement.

The Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill, which was co-authored by Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of San Diego. “It’s very important to protecting our liberties,” Anderson said.

The bill is opposed by the California District Attorneys Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the California State Sheriffs Assn. as unnecessary and a burden to investigations.

By proposing new procedures, the bill “undermines critical efforts to stop child exploitation, mandates the destruction of evidence by law enforcement, and violates the California Constitution,” the prosecutors’ group said in a letter to lawmakers.

The sheriffs’ group added that “it conflates existing procedures for obtaining certain electronic information under state and federal law, contains burdensome and unnecessary reporting requirements, and will undermine investigations that are fully compliant with the 4th Amendment.”

Leno introduced a similar bill two years ago but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said the area is sufficiently covered by federal law and that the bill’s requirement for notification to those whose devices are searched could harm criminal investigations.


To address concerns, Leno said the new bill, SB 178, contains a broad exception to the notification requirement when it could hamper an ongoing law enforcement investigation or jeopardize efforts to protect the public.

The bill also provides exceptions for when the owner of a device gives consent to a search and when law enforcement believes that an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury requires access.