The California Supreme Court just rejected the government’s attempt to require a youth probationer, as a condition of release, to submit to random searches of his electronic devices and social media accounts. The trial court had imposed the condition because the judge believed teenagers “typically will brag” about drug use on the Internet—even though there was no evidence that the minor in this case, Ricardo P., had ever used any electronic devices in connection with any drugs or illegal activity, let alone ever previously bragged about drug use online.

EFF and the ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case back in 2016, warning that the search condition imposed here was highly invasive, unconstitutional, and in violation of the California Supreme Court’s own standard for probation conditions—which requires that search conditions be “reasonably related to future criminality.” We also warned of the far-reaching privacy implications of allowing courts to impose such broad electronic search conditions. We’re pleased that the California Supreme Court heeded our warnings and recognized the substantial burden this “sweeping probation condition” imposed on Ricardo’s privacy.

The court recognized that the probation condition would give Ricardo’s probation officers “full access, day or night, not only to his social media accounts but also to the contents of his e-mails, text messages, and search histories, all photographs and videos stored on his devices, as well as any other data accessible using electronic devices, which could include anything from banking information to private health or financial information to dating profiles.” And by allowing remote access to Ricardo’s online accounts, the condition would potentially allow his probation officers to monitor his communications in real time. According to the court:

“If we were to find this record sufficient to sustain the probation condition at issue, it is difficult to conceive of any case in which a comparable condition could not be imposed, especially given the constant and pervasive use of electronic devices and social media by juveniles today.”   

The court noted, for example, that if it were to hold—as the California Attorney General argued—that any search condition facilitating supervision of probationers was “reasonably related to future criminality,” it might be obligated to uphold “a condition mandating that probationers wear 24-hour body cameras or permit a probation officer to accompany them at all times.”

This is a critical ruling. The search condition imposed in this case was not unique, but one that many juvenile probationers have been subject to in California in recent years, under the same unsupported reasoning that the trial judge offered here. The California Supreme Court’s decision not only resolves a split in the lower courts regarding the legality of such probation conditions, but it sends a clear message: probation conditions that have “a very heavy burden on privacy with a very limited justification” are not entitled to deference.

We applaud the California Supreme Court for recognizing the serious privacy invasion imposed by the search condition issued in this case and for striking down the condition as invalid.

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