California Gov. Brown Vetoes Ban on Warrantless Phone Search

Posted by at 10:55 am on October 11, 2011

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown​ of California has vetoed a bill passed nearly unanimously by his state legislature that bans searches of people’s smartphones without a warrant, a surprise decision that is seen as out-of-character for Brown and may have been motivated by monetary support from the state’s police unions, Wired is reporting. The veto means that authorities can search any person’s smartphone for any reason during an arrest.

Since many apps allow automatic login to services once the credentials are established, searching a phone could also give authorities access to a user’s e-mail, call records, texts, photos, banking activity, remotely-managed web sites, medical records, cloud-storage services and, on Android models and un-updated iPhones, a log of where the phone has recently been. In vetoing the bill, Brown indicated that he would prefer the courts to figure out the issue, saying “the courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizure protections.” Brown cited a California Supreme Court decision in January — which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand last week — that upheld the idea of warrantless searches of people during police incidents.

The bill passed by the legislature was a direct reaction to the California Supreme Court ruling, intended to undo it and simply require warrants for police to search through a person’s smartphone. The legislature, which is heavily Democratically-controlled, passed the measure by 70-0 in the Assembly and 32-4 in the state Senate. Brown’s veto ignores calls from civil liberties groups and other organizations normally allied with the governor to sign the bill.

Brown, who previously tended to favor individual protection from overreaching authority, may have been influenced by political donations. A number of police unions, including the Peace Officers Research Association of California, had opposed the legislation and donated a total of over $160,000 in combined contributions.

More importantly, if Brown were to seek out a second term, he would need the support of the police organizations against any Republican opponent. In 2007, there were 332,000 felony arrests in the state — but a third of them did not result in conviction. The police unions believe that any restrictions on the ability of a police office to search an arrestee “unduly restricts their ability to apply the law, fight crime, discover evidence and protect the citizens of California,” the PORAC said in a message.

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