If you are arrested in Orange County, California, or anywhere else in the
nation, can the police grab your cellphone and start going through it
without your permission? Can they read your text messages and take note
of all of your contacts? Can the police take your phone and start investigating
the people you’ve been communicating with?
If you are actually arrested, the police can search you and most things
that are within your immediate control, such as a backpack, purse, and
pockets. But, what about your smartphone or even a flip phone? Can the
police do as they please to access the data on your phone, or do they
need a warrant first?
What the U.S. Supreme Court Says
For years, the laws about cellphones were unclear. Across the country,
some states said that the police could search phones without a warrant,
while other states said that a warrant was required. Finally, in 2014,
the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police generally need a warrant before
they can search a cell phone, with limited exceptions.
While some people argued that cellphones were like other evidence found
on a person, such as a pack of cigarettes, or a wallet, the Supreme Court
found that cellphones were not the same as other containers or evidence
found on suspects; the Supreme Court explained that cellphones contained
“digital evidence,” not “physical evidence.”
For most people, the digital evidence on cellphones is very personal. Cellphones
often contain private text messages, banking information, emails, and
information that tracks the cellphone owner’s whereabouts. The Court
argued that the data found on a cellphone may not even be contained on
the phone itself, but instead on a remote server.
What Are the Exceptions?
Most of the time, police officers need a warrant to search an arrestee’s
cellphone. However, the police can take physical evidence, such as a razor
tucked inside a cellphone cover without a warrant. Under what’s
called the “exigent circumstances” doctrine, police can search
a cellphone in the case of an emergency; for example, when a child is
missing or when there is a bomb threat.
In the end, the Supreme Court found that cellphones were a lot like people’s
homes, which law enforcement cannot search without a warrant. Since modern
cellphones typically contain more personal information than a person’s
residence, officers usually need to obtain a warrant before they can go
through a suspect’s cellphone.
Need an Orange County criminal defense attorney?
Contact the Law Offices of Virginia L. Landry, Inc. for a free case evaluation!