Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cellphones fair game for police in California

Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica reports that in California police don't need a warrant to search your cell phone. In a decision (PDF) filed Monday the California Supreme Court ruled that text messages on a cell phone were not protected by the Fourth Amendment. They cited previous cases that denied protection to items that were on suspects persons or in their vehicles.

I can see the reasoning, but it ignores a basic reality of modern life. Your personal computer cannot be searched without a warrant. It is granted Fourth Amendment protection because contains information about your private life that police shouldn't be able to access without proving they have good reason, and you have a reasonable expectation that the information is private. Many people have most, if not all, of that same information on their cell phones or other portable computing devices, and they have that same expectation of privacy.

Hopefully this case or one like it will make it to the U.S. Supreme Court and the decision will be that warrants are required to search mobile devices like cellphones and tablet computers. By allowing warrantless searches of cellphones the California Supreme Court has almost wiped out Fourth Amendment protections in California. Do you check your bank account on your cell phone? Receive email from your lawyer, doctor, accountant? What about risque texts with your significant other? Whether or not you're doing anything illegal, it should not be possible for police to get all that information without proving they have good reason.

Technology changes the way we live our lives, often in unexpected ways. Laws and the courts often can't keep up with the changes. It is important that decisions like this be challenged or the Constitution will become a meaningless document, undermined by poorly formed decisions based on failure to understand the changes modern technology has made in the way people live their lives.