Monday, October 12, 2015

New Law Bars Public Employers From Searching Cell Phones, Personal Devices Without Warrant

On October 8, 2015, Governor Brown signed S.B. 178, the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalEPCA).  CalEPCA prevents a government entity from compelling disclosure of electronic data without warrant. The Act covers both personal devices and online services that store personal data. To waive this protection, the authorized user must give consent to the government agency seeking the information.

Public safety agencies often have policies that apply to "personal communication devices" (PCD). It's likely, however, that many of these sections violate CalEPCA.  For example, some Lexipol PCD policies used by many departments permit administrative searches of both department-issued and personally owned devices.  Under these policies, the employer can track the employee's location, inspect message content, and access online information.  Some Departments have attempted to compel employees to turn over text messages or phone logs without a warrant.

Now, absent an emergency or the employee's consent, the agency needs a warrant to get any of this information. Many public safety departments will have to change their current policies to conform to CalEPCA. As a mandatory bargaining subject, the department and union will have to "meet and confer" to adopt a new policy governing PCDs.