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Can Police Search My Phone?

Attorney Adrian M. Madrone has teamed up with Law Professor Julie A. Helling’s acclaimed Internet Podcast Series Justice On Trial. In this episode, Adrian talked about whether police can legally search your cellphone without first obtaining a warrant. To listen to the complete podcast, where Julie also covers the details of suing police or jails, visit iTunes.

A full transcript of Adrian’s ‘Know Your Rights’ segment is provided below for your convenience.

Can Police Search My Phone?

Can the courts keep up with technology? That’s a question that comes up regularly in the legal profession. Cell phones are one type of technology that the courts have been considering a lot in recent years. In criminal law, a significant question has been: Can police look at the contents of a cellphone without first obtaining a search warrant?

Why do Police Search Phones?

Before we answer that question, we first have to ask: why would police want to look at a person’s cellphone? Well, as we know, over recent years cellphones have become more and more sophisticated. As technology has evolved, cellphones have been able to store more and more data that might be of interest to police—things like text messages, emails, photos, videos, and location data.

Supreme Court Cell Phone Cases

So, if cellphones may contain potentially useful information for law enforcement, how does the search warrant requirement come into play? The United States Supreme Court had to consider this question in two recent cases: Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. In these cases, the court was considering specifically whether police had to obtain a warrant for looking into a cellphone after they had placed a person under arrest.

Riley v. California

In the Riley case, police stopped a driver for a traffic violation, found a weapon in the car, then looked through the driver’s cellphone and found pictures connecting the driver to a shooting.

United States v. Wurie

In the Wurie case, police arrested a man for participating in a drug buy. They opened his phone, accessed a phone number in his call log, which they then used to obtain a search warrant on an apartment. The question was whether the Constitution allowed police to search through these phones without first getting a search warrant.

Does a Cell Phone Search Require a Warrant?

Now, older Supreme Court cases had held that after arresting a person, police could perform a basic search of the person’s body and personal items to look for “weapons” or to prevent the “concealment or destruction of evidence.” Here the Supreme Court had to consider whether looking through the contents of a cellphone was the same as asking a person to turn their pockets inside out or patting down their clothing.

In a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court held that the 4th Amendment does not allow police to open and search through cellphones without first getting a search warrant. Now, there are still many other open questions about cellphones (for example, once police get a search warrant, are phone companies required to turn over data that they possess?). However, on this one question we now know that the data on your phone is protected by the Constitution, and police may not seize and search through your phone without first getting a warrant.

This is Adrian Madrone, and this ‘Know Your Rights’ segment has been brought to you by the Lustick, Kaiman & Madrone law firm, a full-service criminal defense firm in beautiful Bellingham, Washington.

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