Can Police Search My Laptop?
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Overview of Police Searches
The 4th Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. The protection against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to people and property, and applies in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
To conduct a search, police generally need a warrant. Before a search warrant may be issued, the 4th Amendment requires the officer to have probable cause. Thus, where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, the police need a warrant before they can conduct a search.
However, there are notable exceptions:
- Exigent circumstances
- Plain view
- Administrative searches
- Stop and frisk
- Incident to a lawful arrest
Note that the search bar is lower for automobiles. If police have probable cause that a car has contraband or evidence of a crime, they may search parts and containers of the car where they may discover that evidence.
Can Police Search My Laptop without a Warrant?
Maybe. It will depend on whether the police have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime on the computer, and that the evidence in question is under immediate threat of destruction. Otherwise, the police will need a warrant.
Still, where law enforcement has probable cause and the necessary circumstances, and even where they have a warrant, they still may face one more important hurdle: passwords and encryption keys.
Under no circumstances can the police force an individual to hand over passwords or encryption keys. The Fifth Amendment protects individuals against compelled self-incrimination. Courts have determined that where passwords are only stored on a person’s mind, the government cannot force the suspect to produce them.
This is not to say a password completely protects the contents of the computer; a court or a grand jury may be able to force the defendant to produce the files on the computer. Some courts reason that unlike a password, a file is not "testimonial," meaning they do not convey any information solely from the defendant’s mind, such as personal knowledge and beliefs.
So, once a file is made, ordering it to be produced may be perfectly square with constitutional protections. Needless to say, other courts disagree. Whether someone may be forced to unlock their computer depends largely on where the person is located, because the federal circuits are not entirely settled on whether the Fifth Amendment is implicated by ordering a suspect to decrypt it.
Should I Contact an Attorney?
If you are facing prosecution for a crime, or fear you may be, and believe the police have searched your personal laptop or computer without a warrant, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.
Consult a Lawyer - Present Your Case Now!
Last Modified: 03-09-2015 11:51 AM PDT
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