Keeping data private

Michigan voters can strike a blow for liberty by approving an amendment to the state constitution.

The Editorial Board
Wed, 12 Aug 2020 04:00:00 GMT

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Michigan voters can strike a blow for liberty by approving an amendment to the state constitution that will protect personal data stored in electronic and digital form.

The amendment gives the same protections from warrantless search and seizure to information and documents stored on cell phones and computers as that offered to a person’s personal documents and other property.

The amendment would make clear that digital communications and data are protected by the Fourth Amendment, said Merissa Kovach of American Civil Liberties Union, Michigan.

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The question of such data being protected in the state would be answered “once and for all.”

It’s a rare opportunity to extend state constitutional protections for citizens. Voters shouldn’t miss an opportunity to decide Michigan’s law directly.

The resolution to put the issue on the ballot had bipartisan support in the Legislature.

A document or photo owned by an individual is personal property no matter whether in hard copy or digital formats. And personal property is protected from warrantless searches and seizures by both the state and U.S. constitutions.

This amendment is needed though, because the courts have struggled with the issue.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a warrant is needed to search cell phone data, the reality is that courts change their opinions, and police departments change their practices, so the most effective way to protect electronic data is to make it clear by passing a law, in this case an amendment to the state constitution.

Like a letter or a personal document, police should obtain a warrant for digital information after proving to the satisfaction of a magistrate or judicial officials that the information is needed for a criminal investigation and that probable cause exists.

The amendment does not hamper police. Law enforcement can certainly pursue criminal cases involving electronic data. Most police forces follow these standards already — by obtaining a warrant for searches.

The lead sponsor of the resolution leading to the amendment vote, Sen. Jim Runstead (R., White Lake), said that the law needs to change with the times.

“The failure of our laws to address this new reality is not only a threat to our liberties today. It is a threat to the future generations to come.”

The senator is right. Protections enshrined in the Michigan Constitution will protect the citizens of the state now and in future, as the constitution intended. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …”

It’s time to bring Michigan law into the age of digital communications.