With the nation atwitter over recent reports on the extent of the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance program (which, by the way, should surprise no one; the program is neither new nor a particularly well-kept secret), New Jersey's current controversy over privacy rights may seem a little quaint:
Should police at the scene of an accident be allowed to confiscate your cellphone without a warrant and review your call history?
The point of the bill (S2783), which was introduced last month by state Sen. James W. Holzapfel, R-Ocean, is obvious and understandable:
A shocking number of motorists continue to talk on hand-held phones - or, worse, send or read text messages - while driving. New Jersey outlawed that in March 2008, but too many motorists continue to ignore the law.
Another bill in the Legislature would increase the penalties for using a hand-held phone behind the wheel, and we are all for that measure. But Holzapfel's bill giving police the authority to seize a cell phone at the scene of a crash troubles us.
Cellphones, of course, are full of private information, and being required to turn over your call history to an officer certainly seems like an invasion of privacy to us.
Several critics, including some police officers, have questioned the constitutionality of the proposal. The bill would require that officers have "reasonable grounds" to believe the phone played a role in the accident under investigation. That's a lesser standard than the "probable cause" search standard enshrined in the Constitution.
Not that this is an entirely open-and-shut issue. We have no sympathy for anyone who texts and drives. And you could argue that this bill calls for a relatively minor, innocuous invasion of privacy.
But that argument is outweighed by this fact: This invasion of privacy, minor or not, simply isn't necessary. Police can already find out if someone was using a hand-held cellphone while driving. Law enforcement authorities can and do routinely get call records from the phone companies - they just have to get a judge to issue a search warrant first. No, they can't do that at the scene of an accident - but what's the downside of getting the information a few days later?
There's just no reason to give police this additional power. Call histories are already readily available to law enforcement ... and, apparently, to the NSA.