Cellphone searches, missing emails at the IRS, and follow-through in Hallowell

THUMBS UP to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision Wednesday that cellphones are protected from warrantless searches by the police.

According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of American adults have a smartphone. Among Americans age 18-29, that number jumps to 83 percent, indicating that in less than a generation the vast majority of Americans will be carrying what amount to handheld computers.

Calling them smartphones, in fact, is a bit of a misnomer, as phone calls are fast becoming one of the devices least-used features. They are now an extension of the user’s lives, and carry an enormous amount of personal information.

The Justice Department had argued that rules allowing police officers to conduct, for safety reasons, warrantless searches of subjects under arrest should apply to cellphones.

Writing in the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts got it right: “A decade ago, officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90 percent of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.”

Local law enforcement officials reached following the decision say they already seek out warrants to search cellphones connected to cases. And it’s clear that Maine values privacy — recently enacted laws here protect location data, voicemails and text messages from warrantless searches, except in cases of emergency.

This ruling goes further, and is an indication the court understands the true impact of new and evolving technology.

THUMBS UP to the Obama administration for extending federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states, including Maine, and the District of Columbia. But without President Barack Obama’s efforts, federal benefits — such as shared health and life insurance, flexible spending accounts, IRS matters and immigration laws, to name a few — could be denied to same-sex spouses living in states where same-sex marriage is not allowed.

Same-sex couples who have been legally married should be recognized as such wherever they go. Now they know the federal government is standing behind them, even if many states regrettably are not.

THUMBS UP to indications that Hallowell will address its personnel policy following revelations that the police chief had a sexual relationship with an officer.

After the Kennebec Journal broke the news about the relationship, and about allegations by the officer that the police chief sexually assaulted her after the relationship ended, Mayor Mark Walker said a City Council committee should review the policy.

The Hallowell Police Department, like many small Maine departments, has no policy against superior officers having romantic relationships with subordinates.

Those kinds of relationships can be detrimental to a department, and ultimately leave the municipality vulnerable to lawsuits.

A 2010 national survey found only 40 percent of departments have such a policy, and neither the Maine Municipal Association nor the Maine Chiefs fo Police Association have a recommended policy about fraternization.

The departments in Maine that don’t should follow the Hallowell situation closely, and review their own policies.

THUMBS DOWN to the Internal Revenue Service for the loss of emails related to the agency’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax exemptions.

The retainment and archiving of government communications is essential to open government, and the explanation that the emails — two years’ worth of communications from Lois Lerner, a senior IRS executive — were lost when Lerner’s computer crashed falls flat.

Either the agency’s procedure for storing communications is so weak that one malfunctioning computer can erase emails forever, or the IRS is hiding something.

In either case, it really doesn’t matter — the mere absence of the emails is enough to raise suspicion, which is why it is so important that public records are stored correctly.

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