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Michigan votes to require warrants for police to seize and search digital devices

The election result has reaffirmed recent precedent.

Voters in the US state of Michigan have decided that searches of laptop, phones, and associated electronic data will require a search warrant going forward.

Michigan Proposal 20-2 to require a search warrant to access a person’s electronic data and electronic communications passed overwhelmingly, with 88.7 percent (nearly four million people) voting “yes,” and only 11.3 percent voting “no.”

At the same time, the proposal amends the Michigan Constitution to bring the existing protections from unlawful and unreasonable searches of homes, documents, and other personal possessions up to date, and include electronic data and communications on people’s devices.

The goal of Proposal 2 was to make sure the new rules explicitly state a private citizen’s electronic data is equally protected, thus removing any vagueness and various interpretations. Currently, law enforcement must have a warrant before searching a home and somebody’s personal belongings, including papers and other items, but electronic versions of these stored on devices like phones and laptops are not mentioned in the language of the legal solutions that far predate the technological transformation of society.

Now that it has been passed with a huge margin, the law guarantees that the police in that state cannot search private data unless authorized by a judge.

However, the US Supreme Court in the past already set precedent when it ruled in a case that a warrant was needed also when it comes to searching a person’s phone. Even prior to Proposition 2 passing in Michigan, in a majority of cases phone data was treated by officers as private information but the goal of the new legal rule introduced with overwhelming support was to remove any ambiguity.

In the lead-up to the voting, some experts and civil rights activists were skeptical about how far, if adopted, Proposal 2 can really go in protecting electronic communication and data in an era when not only law enforcement but also private companies are collecting it in earnest.

Another question raised was how effective the new rule will be, given that electronic data is not always used with a person’s consent, or in expected ways.

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