Can the Police Search Your Cellphone?

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!

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