Can Police Search My Cell Phone?

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 Overview of the Law Governing Police Searches

American citizens are 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 reasonable expectation of privacy by limiting when and how the police may conduct a search. This right extends into 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 believed to be in connection with a criminal investigation. To be valid, a search warrant must be signed by a neutral judge, specify the details of the search, and be based on probable cause. Probable cause refers to some basis of a 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 to conduct a legal search. Some notable exceptions include:

  • 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 done in connection with a legal arrest; or
  • The police have pulled a person over, and there is evidence in plain view in the vehicle.

If the 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?

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 need search warrants to search cell phones of people they have arrested. This Supreme Court decision was made 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 because the Supreme Court determined that a person’s cell phone generally contains more information than their home. Therefore, a person does indeed have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding their cell phone. As such, police should not 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 illegal under specific circumstances. If a search occurs based on the use of an unlawful 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.

Suppose you believe that your privacy rights have been violated, and you suffered losses or harm due to a police violation. In that case, 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 essential and must be protected.

Are There Limits to the Cell Phone Search Rule?

Prosecutors have expressed objections to the requirement that police officers obtain warrants before searching arrestee’s cell phones. “Remote wiping” occurs when a third party deletes someone’s cell phone data after police officers take it. Data might erase if the phone enters or exits a particular geographic region.

An officer can search a cell phone without a warrant if the cell phone is used as a weapon. For example, officers can retrieve a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Officers can take preventative measures to avoid the loss of a phone’s data. Officers can turn off the phone, place it in a bag, or disable its automatic encryption lock, for example. Today, it often takes officers as little as 15 minutes to get a search warrant. Unless there is an emergency, officers typically need a warrant to search.

The “exigent circumstances” doctrine allows officers to act without warrants when severe circumstances exist. If officers believe they can do nothing to stop the loss of a phone’s data and must search it now, they can likely do so. Officers can search a phone if there’s a basis to suspect that it can help them avert disaster.

Are There Warrants for Cell Phone Tracking Data?

The collection of cell-site location information and location history data is another cell phone privacy issue. Location history data is stored by cell phone providers and shows where your phone has been. Officers investigating a case may want to see where someone was by collecting location data relating to a person’s phone. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that police usually need a warrant for this kind of historical cell phone location data.

However, the law remains uncertain regarding newer technologies that allow law enforcement to request real-time location services information and other real-time location data, like location data used by apps on a smartphone. In some cases, police have requested reverse location data that allows them to work backward in identifying suspects.

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

Cell phones are like homes in which officers need warrants to search. A cell phone with its immense storage capacity contains private and sensitive information. Officers who plan to search a cell phone must have court approval beforehand.

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. 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 and determine whether the police followed all proper procedures when searching. An attorney can assist in suing the police if that option is available to you based on the specifics of your case. 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.

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