Can Police Search Your Cell Phone?

Skilled Criminal Defense Attorney for the People of Cedar Rapids

As our society’s technologies evolve and change, so do the ways that police can access our personal and private information. As cell phone providers and app makers increasingly track our habits, locations, and friends, cell phones have become a hotbed of personal information that can help police in criminal investigations.

While police often want access to cell phone contents in order to find out more about a suspect in a crime – or even a witness who may have more information than he or she realizes – the searching of cell phones raises important privacy and constitutional rights concerns. One thing is clear – individuals who are arrested need not simply hand over the cell phone to police without considering their options.

The General Rights of Cedar Rapids Residents Against Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects U.S. citizens from unlawful search and seizure. Under the Fourth Amendment, if you are arrested on suspicion of a crime, police may search you in only a limited capacity in order to protect your rights against governmental intrusion. They are limited to searching your person, including your pockets, any containers in your possession, and any area within your immediate control.

This does not mean that police have the full right or authority to search anything and everything related to you. To go beyond a basic search of your body and immediate vicinity, police must have a warrant for their search. For example, just because police arrest you on your front porch does not automatically give them the right to search your home. Searching without a warrant violates your Constitutional rights.

The Fourth Amendment and Cell Phone Searches

Because of the rapidly changing nature of technology, it is not always clear to police or courts whether a search of an electronic device is proper under the Fourth Amendment. For many years, police and lower courts were unsure of how to treat cell phone searches after arrest. Some thought that the cell phone was similar to any other container that police might find on a person, such as a pill container, and could be searched incidental to the arrest.

Other courts disagreed and held that cell phones were entirely different from other types of containers because of the breadth of information they contained, and required a warrant before being searched. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court finally weighed in on this issue.  It held that unlike other normal containers, cell phones held both physical and digital evidence, and that digital evidence required a warrant in order to be searched.

The Supreme Court held that the data that can be stored on a cell phone is so vast and potentially personal as to require a warrant. For instance, individuals might have medical records and financial records stored on their phones, or detailed histories of their recent movements. They may also have information received from others that is not really even their own.

In order to protect the privacy of individuals arrested, and limit police access to this wide range of data, the Supreme Court held that police must obtain a warrant in the same way that they must procure a warrant to search a home.

The Supreme Court did explain a few special exceptions to this general rule, which are worth bearing in mind. First, to the extent that your phone is also believed to be a weapon, the police may search it. For example, if you have a harmful substance contained in your phone holder,  police do not need a warrant to protect themselves from such threats.

Second, under certain “exigent circumstances” the police may go ahead and search your phone. Exigent circumstances are extreme circumstances that require an exception to the rule. For example, exigent circumstances exist if officers believe your phone contains information about a missing child who is in imminent danger. Another example would be if they have reason to believe the data off your phone is about to be erased.

What All Of This Means For You

Under the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, if you are arrested by police, in most circumstances the police must have a warrant to look at the contents of your phone. They cannot simply ask you to hand over your phone at a traffic stop, or ask for the text messages off your phone if you are arrested on an alleged conspiracy.  

While police should follow these rules in order to protect your Constitutional rights, this doesn’t always happen. They may be caught up in the circumstances of an arrest or eager to get access to information that they may not be entitled to.

While there may be little that you can do at the time to stop police from illegally accessing your phone, beyond asserting your Constitutional rights, you can move to have this evidence excluded at any subsequent trial. Evidence that was obtained in violation of your rights cannot be used by prosecutors to prove their case.

Your criminal defense attorney will work with you to file a motion to suppress the evidence from your cell phone in the event that an illegal search occurs. They can even move to suppress evidence that was subsequently obtained as a result of information the police found on your phone. Thus, your rights can be protected at a later date if they are not honored at the time of arrest.

Contact a Dedicated Iowa Attorney to Protect Your Right to Privacy

Being arrested under suspicion of a crime is a very overwhelming experience. It can be hard to assert your rights in the moment, let alone think clearly about what those rights might be. Thankfully for criminal defendants, it is the job of the police to know and respect your Constitutional rights and the boundaries that they create. And in the event that they fail to do so, the courts can protect you.

Dedicated criminal defense attorney Jonathan D. Schmidt has years of experience fighting for the fundamental rights of criminal defendants, and has moved to suppress evidence obtained from illegal searches. If you believe your rights were not adequately respected, contact his office online or at 319-774-6078.