In re Ricardo P. (Electronic Search)
On August 15, 2019, the California Supreme Court invalidated an expansive “electronic search condition” imposed on a young probationer that required him to submit his electronic devices and online accounts (including passwords) for searches at any time and without cause as a condition of probation. The Court held that the sweeping search condition was not ‘reasonably related” to future criminality and thus invalid. In doing so, it recognized that young people—even those on probation—have a right to privacy that allows them the space and safety to learn, communicate and grow without constant scrutiny of their sensitive electronic information.
Electronic searches can have a significant detrimental impact not only on the life of the young person targeted with the search but on anyone with whom they interact or communicate. Young people rely on electronic devices and online services to connect and seek information, including support and help with deeply personal problems. Searches of electronic devices and online communications can reveal sensitive details about their lives, including inquiries and conversations on topics including sexuality, reproductive health, immigration status, political and social activism, and more. These sensitive conversations may not happen if they are constantly at risk of being read by others, especially law enforcement. As a result, broad electronic search conditions can deter them from creating meaningful connections and seeking out helpful services that further the rehabilitative purposes of probation.
As a result, the ACLU Foundations of California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief asking the California Supreme Court to invalidate the search condition, and the ACLU appeared before the court at oral argument in May 2019 to make the same argument. We urged the Court to take into account the degree to which electronic surveillance is more invasive and harmful than any traditional search and requires reconsideration of traditional rules, highlighting the landmark 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case of Riley v. California and other cases that take into account the impact of modern technology on the privacy rights of everyone, including young Californians on probation.
The Court’s opinion reflects precisely this reasoning: it does not reject electronic search conditions outright but makes it clear that they may only be imposed when (and to the extent) the specific circumstances of the case justify doing so, not as a routine condition imposed on every young person who is pulled into the criminal justice system.
As we argued in our brief: “The price of any youthful transgression cannot be that the government has an all-access, long-term pass to a person’s private life that chills access to the supportive communities and rehabilitative services that will help build a healthy and productive future.” In re Ricardo P. makes it clear that imposing that price on every young person on probation is not permitted under California law.