Gov. Jerry Brown faces many tough decisions these days. Whether to sign SB 914, which would require police to obtain a warrant before searching a person’s cellphone or other portable electronic device, isn’t one of them. This is a sound bill, passed with broad bipartisan support and consistent with the U.S. Constitution. He should sign it.
SB 914 is the Legislature’s response to a California Supreme Court ruling that allowed officers to search a suspect’s cellphone because it was “incident to an arrest.” But the Constitution speaks clearly to the protection from police abuse that all Americans enjoy: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Surely, one’s “effects” today include the contents of one’s cellphone or laptop, where many store information just as sensitive or private as that which might be found in a desk drawer among one’s “papers.”
The bill would not prevent police from ever searching a phone or other electronic device; rather, it would require them to seek a warrant before rummaging around in a suspect’s effects. It would not put police in danger or risk destruction of evidence; they could seize and hold a phone while seeking a warrant. That’s why Republicans and Democrats have jointly backed the bill. Its only real opponents are police organizations, the same ones that once warned that the jails would be empty if police were required to read suspects their rights. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. The governor should approve this modest restraint on government snooping. Police will learn to live with it.