SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Wednesday claiming that the San Francisco police conducted a search of an activist's cellphone without a warrant.
The civil suit claims that two San Francisco police officers violated Bob Offer-Westort's privacy when they searched his cellphone after he was arrested last year for protesting a proposed city ordinance he felt was unfairly targeting homeless people.
The ACLU argues that the warrantless searches violated Offer-Westort's freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and his freedom of speech. The suit also says the constitutional rights of his family, friends and co-workers and the information in their phones were also violated.
The group claims that is the first civil suit in California to challenge warrantless cellphone searches at the time of arrest.
"(Offer-Westorf) explicitly did not consent to the search," Marley Degner, an attorney whose San Francisco-based firm is handling the lawsuit, said Wednesday. "Cellphones are our virtual home offices that contain personal, professional, and financial information not only about us, but also anyone we communicate with.
"If police need a warrant to search our home office, then our cellphones should be treated the same way," Degner concluded.
Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a San Francisco police spokesman, said Wednesday that the department had no comment on pending litigation.
The California Supreme Court — citing U.S. Supreme Court precedents — ruled in 2011 that police can search arrestees' cellphones without a warrant, saying defendants lose their privacy rights for any items they're carrying when taken into custody.
Offer-Westort was arrested on an anti-lodging charge last January while working for the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness after he refused to remove his tent in protest of a proposal to ban camping and other activities at two plazas in the city's Castro District.
Homeless advocates against the proposal said it was unnecessary due to a state law prohibiting lodging without permission.
Despite much debate among the city's board of supervisors, the ordinance barely passed.
In his lawsuit, Offer-Westort said Wednesday that one of the officers took his phone out of his pocket without permission and began scrolling through his text messages and reading them out loud.
Offer-Westort was released from custody and received his cellphone back nearly six months later, the suit says.
"I rely on my cell phone to communicate. We shouldn't have to worry that our personal information, and that of everyone in our phone, will be up for grabs every time we go to a political protest," Offer-Westort said in a written statement.