Can the Police Search Your Phone?

By Danielle Smyth - Updated March 05, 2018
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Cellphones are used in so many aspects of daily life that many people might not stop to think about how revealing they really are. Apps, text messages, emails and social media are home to so much of our personal information that anyone who found someone's phone would be able to piece together a great deal of sensitive data. From a security perspective, this can be dangerous. Law enforcement officials, however, can benefit from this sort of data, as it pertains to solving crimes. If you are a person of interest in a case, can the police legally search your phone?

Tip

Without a warrant, the police are not allowed to search your cellphone. If your phone uses fingerprint technology, laws do permit officers to make you open your phone.

Are Police Officers Allowed to Search Your Phone?

As of a June 2014 Supreme Court case, Riley v. California, police officers are no longer allowed to search your cellphone without a warrant. In this court case, a man named Riley was stopped for a traffic violation and subsequently arrested on weapons charges. Law enforcement examined Riley’s cellphone while he was in custody and determined that he might have been involved in gang activity. Riley petitioned to have the digital evidence from his phone thrown out. In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Since cellphones are now so pervasive and contain so much private data, the Supreme Court felt that it should no longer be permitted for law enforcement to review their contents without a warrant. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision that “Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”

This decision overturned the 1969 decision of Chimel v. California, in which the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement had the right to search suspects and the area immediately surrounding their persons to ensure they were not hiding weapons. Since digital information can’t be considered a weapon, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley that this aspect of the law would no longer apply to cellphones.

There are limitations to the freedom granted by the Riley decision, however. In cases of bomb threats or child abduction, for instance, cellphones can be searched by the police without a warrant.

Can the Police Get Into a Locked iPhone or Android Phone?

Without a warrant, police officers are not permitted to search your phone. If it is locked with a passcode, your cellphone cannot be accessed by law enforcement unless you unlock it for them.

If a police officer attempts to look at the data on your cellphone or requests that you unlock your phone, you have the right to politely refuse and cite the Riley decision.

However, some courts have ruled that law enforcement can require you to use your fingerprint to open your phone if it operates on that technology. Though it is argued by some that this violates the law that police officers must have a warrant, fingerprints (like driver’s licenses) are considered something you must turn over to the police if asked. Fingerprints are not covered under your Fifth Amendment rights. A passcode, on the other hand, is information that you have, and you have the right to keep that private if the police do not present you with a warrant.

About the Author

Danielle Smyth is a writer and content marketer from upstate New York. She holds a Master of Science in Publishing from Pace University. Her experience includes years of work in the insurance, workers compensation, disability, and background investigation fields. In addition to being the content writer and social media manager for Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, she has written on legal topics for a number of other clients. She owns her own content marketing agency, Wordsmyth Creative Content Marketing (www.wordsmythcontent.com), and she enjoys writing legal articles and blogs for clients in related industries.

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