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CA Gov Vetoes Bill. Cops: ‘Eureka, I found it’ on cell phone with no warrant required

Oct 10, 20114 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Since CA Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill to outlaw warrantless searches, you can officially forget about requiring CA law enforcement to first obtain a warrant - a warrant which implies probable cause - before searching mobile phones. With no warrant needed and no expectation of privacy, it gives police a whole new appreciation of the CA motto of 'Eureka, I found it!'

There was bad news in California on Sunday when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required police to obtain a warrant before searching mobile phones. As it stands now, if arrested in California, the police need no warrant before seizing and searching cell phones. In fact, a person has no privacy rights and police are allowed to seize and examine anything they find in the arrestee’s possession.

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to review a CA Supreme Court ruling that allowed police to search mobile phones without a warrant, including perusing text messages on an arrested person’s cell phone. Since SCOTUS passed on weighing in, the ruling stood that when a person is arrested, they lose any right to privacy for any personal belongings they’re carrying on them when taken into custody. The original ruling was based on past cases where cigarette packs were allowed to be searched. A smartphone stores enormous amounts of personal data, not even in the same realm as a pack of smokes, and there was some hope that Gov. Brown would sign the bill and thereby outlaw warrantless searches of mobile phones.

Instead of signing the bill known as SB 914 that would have required law enforcement to first obtain a warrant – since a warrant implies probable cause – Brown rubber stamped it with a veto vote. Then Brown wrote [PDF], “The courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizures protections.”

Threat Level’s David Kravets pointed out that “Brown’s veto also shores up support with the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a police union that opposed the legislation.” According to the association, “Restricting the authority of a peace officer to search an arrestee unduly restricts their ability to apply the law, fight crime, discover evidence valuable to an investigation and protect the citizens of California.”

It also conveniently makes proving probable cause an obsolete idea in California. For example, what if American citizens who have the Right to Assemble and the Right to Free Speech were gathered together in California for their city’s version of Occupy Wall Street protests? If arrested, their mobile devices that hold a wealth of personal info and link to their digital lives could be seized and searched. Perhaps California cops might even take a page from the Michigan State Police and use a Universal Forensic Extraction Device to suck the data out of mobile phones in under two minutes? Don’t be surprised when it happens because cell phone searches are legal even at traffic stops.

The Agitator gives another unpleasant scenario for Cali folks:

So a traffic infraction can now lead to a search of your email (much of which may be stored on off-site servers, but still downloadable from your cell phone), GPS history, cell phone photos and video, web browsing history, history of phone calls placed and received, text message history, and anything else you do with your cell phone. Troubling, to say the least.

How handy for California, a state with the motto of “Eureka” on a its state seal since 1849. It gives “Eureka, I found it,” a whole new meaning for police.

Image credit: Dr. Craig

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.