American citizens are generally protected from unreasonable police searches and seizures by the 4th Amendment. The 4th Amendment of the American Constitution protects an individual’s privacy interests, or their reasonable expectation of privacy, by limiting when and how the police may conduct a search. This includes a person’s home, papers, effects, or actual physical body. It is important to note that the 4th Amendment only protects American citizens against “unreasonable” searches. As such, reasonable searches may override a person’s 4th Amendment rights.

Generally, before the police may invade a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, they need to acquire a search warrant issued by a judge. A search warrant is a court document that allows police to search a specific property for specific items that are believed to be in connection with a criminal investigation. In order to be valid, a search warrant must not only be signed by a neutral judge, but must also specify the details of the search and be based on probable cause. Probable cause refers to some basis of belief that there is evidence in connection with a crime on the property that the police wish to search.

However, police do not always need to obtain a search warrant in order to conduct a legal search. Some notable exceptions include but may not be limited to:

  • Consent was given to a search without a warrant;
  • The evidence is in plain view;
  • Stop and frisk, with the exception that the search not be more invasive than what can be felt over the person’s clothing;
  • The search is made in connection with a legal arrest; and/or
  • The police have pulled a person over and there is evidence in plain view in the vehicle.

It is also important to note that if police have probable cause to believe that your vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime, they may search all parts of the vehicle as well as closed containers in the vehicle.

Can Police Search the Contents of My Cell Phone Without a Search Warrant?

In short, no. Police may not search the contents of your cell phone without a search warrant. Police are required to obtain a search warrant before legally searching a person’s cell phone, even after a valid arrest.

In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Riley v. California that the police do need search warrants in order to search cell phones of people they have arrested. This Supreme Court decision was made in order to clarify the extent of 4th Amendment protections. As previously mentioned, the 4th Amendment affirms the right of American citizens to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures” when a valid warrant has not been obtained.

The decision was made due to the fact that the Supreme Court determined that a person’s cell phone generally contains more information than their home does. Therefore, a person does indeed have a reasonable expectation of privacy in regards to their cell phone. As such, police should not be able to search an arrestee’s cell phone without a valid warrant or unless the arrestee provides voluntary consent for the search.

When Are Search Warrants Illegal? What If I Believe My Rights Were Violated in Connection With a Police Search?

Search warrants may be invalid or actually illegal under specific circumstances. If a search occurs based on the use of an illegal search warrant, the search will likely be deemed unconstitutional and the evidence obtained will not be included in any proceeding trial. A search warrant may be considered illegal if the warrant was obtained without proper probable cause, and the warrant does not state or list a specific time, place, and items to be searched.

If you believe that your privacy rights have been violated, and you suffered losses or harm as a result of the police violation, you may be able to file a lawsuit against the police involved in the illegal search. Although this is a complex legal situation, your constitutional rights are important and it is imperative that they are protected.

Do I Need an Attorney If the Police Have Searched My Cell Phone?

Whether or not you were legally arrested, the police do not have a right to search your cell phone without a valid search warrant or valid consent. Searching the contents of a cell phone without either a warrant or consent is a violation of your 4th Amendment rights and should be taken seriously. Thus, if your cell phone has been searched without a warrant or consent, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights, as well as determine whether the police followed all proper procedures when conducting a search. Additionally, an attorney can assist in suing the police if that option is available to you based on the specifics of your case. Next, if the attorney successfully argues that your 4th Amendment rights were violated, they can seek that any evidence uncovered during the illegal search be deemed inadmissible in court. Finally, an attorney may represent you at any necessary court hearings.