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Opinion

Law enforcement and cellphone searches

On an April afternoon in 2007, a Ventura County sheriff’s deputy arrested Gregory Diaz after he allegedly sold Ecstasy to an undercover informant. Diaz was taken into custody and initially denied any wrongdoing, but deputies had seized his cellphone, and they examined it without a warrant. When they did, they found a text message reading “6 4 80.” A deputy interpreted that to mean Diaz was offering to sell six tabs for $80. Shown the text message and the deputy’s interpretation of it, Diaz admitted selling the drugs. When a court ruled that the text message would be admissible, Diaz pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

That ended the immediate issue, but the Diaz case has continued to cause controversy and difficulty for courts and legislators. The California Supreme Court upheld Diaz’s conviction, but others have questioned the warrantless search of Diaz’s cellphone and argue that it opens the door for police abuse. Among those concerned is state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who introduced a bill to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision and require officers to secure a warrant, based on a showing of probable cause, before they search a phone. Leno’s bill, SB 914, intelligently balances the needs of police with the historic limitations on their power to search; it has passed the Senate and deserves approval by the Assembly as well.

Leno’s bill received fairly bipartisan support in the Senate, where it passed by a vote of 28 to 9. That’s appropriate, as people of varying politics should recognize the value of strong, clear rules to guide the actions of police. Libertarians no less than liberals should see that it serves no one to have police allowed the authority to snoop without guidance from the courts. Police are not allowed to search a suspect’s house or his computer without probable cause, and there’s no reason why they should be allowed to search his cell phone.

In the zeal to fight crime, leaders sometimes understandably — if misguidedly — conclude that public safety is best secured by offering police unlimited latitude. The famous Miranda case should remind them that’s not necessarily true. Originally opposed by police, who feared it would set untold numbers of criminals free, Miranda instead has supplied police with sound guidance. When the case seemed on the verge of being overturned in 2000, police organizations actually rallied in defense of it, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the decision upholding it.

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So too with searches and seizures. Police do not need unfettered ability to grab potential evidence. What they need are solid, rational rules that are easy to apply. Leno’s bill provides just that.


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