Opinion: Forget your guns and your pot. If the police come for you, ditch your smartphone

A friend who frequently marches in demonstrations -- peaceful, legal, 1st Amendment-protected protests -- said something I found startling: As a matter of routine, the police not only confiscate her smartphone, they hook it up to their computers and drain all the data into their files. They’re not shy about it. They let her know. She was surprised that I was surprised.

Until recently, this happened all the time, for example during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. All over the United States, including in California, local police departments have arrested people for minor offenses such as trespassing or marching in a protest, and taken advantage of the opportunity to spy on them.

There’s really no better word than “spy” for this. Anyone who owns a smartphone knows that you can pretty much find out everything you want to know about a person if you have full access to the data inside: where they bank and how much money they have in their accounts, contact information for all of their associates and the nature of those relationships, their taste in news media, their complete browsing history, their online purchases, their sexual interests, you name it.

In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a straightforward, unanimous ruling that, if we were truly a nation of laws, would have put an immediate end to this warrantless practice. The court ruled that police searches of smartphones and tablets of those in custody are violations of the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches unless the cops obtain a warrant from a judge authorizing them to do so.


According to many reports, however, police continue such searches in violation of citizens’ right to privacy — sometimes to erase video evidence of alleged police misconduct.

A California legislator is promoting a bill, which has been endorsed by a number of big Silicon Valley tech firms such as Twitter and Google, that would essentially reconfirm the Supreme Court’s decision in the form of state law. If state Sen. Mark Leno’s bill passes, the cops will have to demonstrate just cause to look at your phone or tablet, and ask a judge to issue a warrant.

The trajectory of civil rights and personal freedoms is not linear.

On the one hand, you have increasingly intrusive and assertive police who set up checkpoints, confiscate personal property of people who aren’t charged with violating any laws, and search our electronic devices just because they can — actually, even when they can’t.


At the same time, other things are loosening up.

In many states, it’s perfectly legal to purchase and own semi-automatic weapons whose proper place is in a high-intensity war zone, carried by uniformed members of the military. If the cops catch you with one of those, and you bought it legally, you are free to go.

California is a state, one of several, moving rapidly from de facto decriminalization of marijuana to full-fledged legalization. As things stand, if you get a mellow doctor to write you a note because you suffer from back pain, that bag of weed isn’t any business of your local constable.

Which forms the basis of this week’s cartoon: I imagine two miscreants, Cheech-and-Chong style, throwing contraband out the window as the police chase them down the highway. But in this weird topsy-turvy land of police oppression paired with liberalizing legislation on guns and drugs, they’re throwing out the one thing that could really get them in trouble. Not guns. Not drugs. Their iPhones and iPads.


The next time I get pulled over by the police for speeding or whatever, I may wait to drive over a bridge before pulling over so I have a chance to throw my phone out the window first. Not that I have anything to hide – but who I talk to and what I think are not the business of the state.

Now to see if my phone insurance policy premium is paid up.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall



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