Should law enforcement get an all access, long-term pass to a teenager’s cell phone, just because he or she had a run in with police? That question is in front of California’s highest court, and in an amicus brief filed earlier this month, EFF and the three California offices of the ACLU warned that it was a highly invasive and unconstitutional condition of juvenile parole.
In this case, a teenager known in court documents as Ricardo P. admitted to two cases of burglary. One condition of his parole was that he submit his phone to search at any time, whether by his probation officers or any peace officer, even though his phone use had nothing to do with the commission of the crimes.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that you cannot treat personal electronic devices so cavalierly. In 2014, the court in Riley v. California recognized that government searches of cellphones implicate personal privacy in ways that few things do, and rejected the government’s claims that cellphones can be searched without a warrant. After all, cell phones contain the sum of all of our lives, including our religious views, our sexual orientations, our health conditions, or physical movements throughout the day, and more. And the privacy implications go far further than the individual juvenile on parole. Everyone the child talks to also has personal information that is exposed to law enforcement. An on-demand search without any probable cause is like letting the government have a long-running wiretap—unprecedented for a probation condition for a juvenile.
And this search condition isn’t just unconstitutional—it’s counter-productive to rehabilitation. Young people rely on their phones and other digital devices to connect with friends and family, as well as to research and contact support services. Knowing they were subject to a search at any time means that kids would have to decide between using everyday tools to get what they need, or giving up their privacy and free expression rights.
Tens of thousands of young people in California go on probation every year. Yet some juvenile courts in the state are still unfairly and inaccurately applying pre-digital legal rules to modern technology. We hope the California Supreme Court helps get juvenile probation into the 21st century, and protect kids who are on parole from these unconstitutional searches.