No, law enforcement cannot search your cell phone without a warrant or probable cause. That being said, there are a number of legal exceptions that will allow law enforcement to search your cell phone without a warrant. Given the fact that your cell phone most likely contains all of your personal information, private photos, and other details of your life, you need to know how to exercise your rights when law enforcement attempts to look through your cell phone.
Everyone has a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. That means that law enforcement cannot search you or your personal belongings without a warrant (there are some people such as inmates, school children or people crossing the border who do not have the full protection of the Fourth Amendment and can be searched without a warrant). That also means that the Fourth Amendment applies to your cell phone, even if you are pulled over, arrested or otherwise being investigated by law enforcement. No matter what the situation is, law enforcement has to have probable cause or a warrant to search your cell phone.
In most situations, law enforcement will not have probable cause to go through your phone so they will ask you for your consent to search your phone. If you ever find yourself in a situation where law enforcement is asking to search your phone then you should ALWAYS say no. Beyond the fact that you have a right to not have a police officer look through your phone, your phone may contain passwords, bank account info or private photos that you do not want to share with law enforcement. It’s important for you to remember that refusing a search cannot be held against you at all, so don’t let the officer talk you into consenting to the search. Regardless of the circumstances, you should never give an officer consent to search your cell phone.
In some situations, law enforcement will have probable cause to seize your cell phone, which they will do on scene, and then they will apply for a search warrant to search your cell phone at a later time. Oftentimes, this happens during a traffic stop. For example, if an officer pulls someone over and finds drugs, baggies and a scale in the vehicle, then law enforcement will have probable cause to believe the person is selling drugs. In this situation, the officer can seize the person’s cell phone based on the probable cause that the driver is selling drugs, and then the officer can apply for a search warrant to search the phone for evidence of drug sales. In most cases, the officer will look through photos and text messages on the phone to determine if there is evidence of drug sales on the phone. In this situation, the driver will not be able stop the officer from seizing their phone because the officer developed probable cause based on what was found in the car.
Law enforcement can also seize or search a phone without a warrant if there are exigent circumstances present. Exigent circumstances include emergency situations requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious danger to property, or to stop the imminent escape of a suspect, or to stop the destruction of evidence. For instance, if law enforcement is arresting someone they believe has kidnapped a minor child and they believe the person’s cell phone contains information about the location missing child then law enforcement may be able to go into the phone without a warrant. In this situation, if the child’s life is in immediate danger and waiting on a warrant could put the child’s life in further peril, the police would be able to get into the phone without a warrant or consent due to the exigent circumstance; however, these situations are rare.
There are very few other exceptions to the warrant requirement for cell phones, but every situation is different. Either way, if the police seize, search or otherwise go through your phone without a warrant then you should contact a lawyer before moving forward with your case. Law enforcement will oftentimes hold and/or search cell phones without the legal authority to do so, so it’s important for you to speak to an attorney who has experience dealing with law enforcement and cell phone seizures. More importantly, if the police pull evidence off of your cell phone illegally then whatever evidence they found should not be admissible in court, so contacting a lawyer is always in your best interest.
If law enforcement searched your phone then your constitutional rights may have been violated. Regardless of the situation, you need an experienced attorney to file pleadings with the appropriate court attacking the legality of the search or seeking the suppression of any evidence found as a result of the illegal search. There are many more benefits to hiring an attorney if you feel your rights have been violated, and it’s important for you to choose the right attorney. Matthew Williams and the Law Office of Matthew Williams focus primarily on criminal defense matters in North Florida, and he’s been handling juvenile delinquency cases his entire career. Attorney Williams treats his clients like family because he knows what they are dealing with is always more than just a case, and he refuses to let law enforcement, state attorneys, or the criminal justice system stand in the way of getting his juvenile clients the justice they deserve. He obtains the best results for his clients and he’ll do the same for your child. Give the Law Office of Matthew Williams a call now.