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Get a warrant: California's new digital law has some fangs

We will certainly scrutinize and duly report to our readers the material details of any article in a national publication that is focused upon criminal law matters in California and refers to "sweeping new requirements" and "outsized effects."

As noted in the Wall Street Journal, that law -- termed the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act -- does indeed render important changes to prior legislation that governed criminal authorities' access to state residents' so-called "digital data."

That data most centrally relates to emails, text messages and online documents of all sorts. It further includes what is called "metadata," namely, things like locational information and the "to" and "from" entries on emails and texts.

California's new law, which was formally enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown October 8 after being widely endorsed by both branches of the California Legislature, mandates that authorities secure a probable-cause warrant to access most forms of digital information.

There are a few stated exceptions to the warrant requirement, but they are tightly circumscribed. One noted by the Journal is an exception granted in exigent circumstances when time is truly of the essence, such as a case where a person's imminent death or injury is reasonably feared.

Interestingly, California's new statutory enactment -- which was broadly backed by a varied group of supporters ranging from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to tech giants such as Google and Apple -- is more comprehensive and citizen-protective than is tandem federal legislation.

For some reason that many readers might find inexplicable, federal law stipulates that digital information can be accessed by criminal authorities without a warrant in the event that it is more than 180 days old.

That law has been declared unconstitutional by one federal appellate court.

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