Police Phone Searches: What You Need to Know
Many cell phone users in the United States have multiple devices. And most of these cell phones are GPS-enabled, internet-connected, are “smart” and can track your movements, personal relationships, online purchases, etc. With such kind of exposure, most people expect a certain level of privacy.
Law enforcement officers can sometimes violate your right to privacy. If a police officer searches your cell phone without your consent or a warrant, you may be dealing with an unlawful situation. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of their constitutional rights during police encounters. That’s why you need to contact a criminal defense attorney in Lemoyne, PA, to defend you against unreasonable search and seizure.
Can The Police Search My Cell Phone?
In Pennsylvania, the police need your consent or need to have a warrant to go through your cell phone. During your arrest, the police can take your cell phone without needing a warrant. However, accessing your data on your cell requires a court order or search warrant.
Even when a cell phone does not have a passcode or biometric lock, the police cannot view any personal information. Remember, your phone contains an abundance of information about you, such as:
- Your phone contacts
- Banking information
- Health data or documents that detail your health status
- Your political affiliation
- Information that reveals your drug, gambling or alcohol addictions
- Internet search history
- Your calendar
- The number of steps you took this week and where you went
With such information in another person’s hands, your life’s private aspects are no longer private. Furthermore, some of this information could be incriminating, even if it’s unrelated to your arrest.
What Does the Law Say About Cell Phone Searches in Pennsylvania?
A 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case and another U.S. Supreme Court case made explicit that the police need a search warrant to access the information on your cell phone. If a police officer stops you and wishes to seize and search your cell phone, they need a warrant. If they proceed without a warrant, then their action would constitute an unlawful search.
In both cases, the courts determined that a warrantless search on a cell phone violates a person’s Fourth Amendment rights. If they keep on and obtain evidence without a warrant, any information obtained from that search is considered the fruit of the poisonous tree and may not be admitted in court.
If the police need a warrant, they need to show a magistrate, municipal judge, or any other judge that they have probable cause to search your cell phone for evidence, probably pointing to a crime. If the warrant is approved, they will then take your phone and copy data from it as they carry on with investigations.
Scope of the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment’s very purpose has always been to prevent government invasion into our personal space without legal justification. However, cell phones pose complex 4th Amendment issues. For instance, a police officer who overhears a suspect in a public place talking about a drug crime over the phone can use that as evidence. But he cannot tap the same cell phone without a warrant.
Are There Exceptions to These Laws?
Like most laws, there are “exigent circumstances” that can allow an officer to conduct a search before obtaining a warrant. This will be the case if the place officer thinks that searching your cell phone at that very instance could stop an imminent tragedy.
In some other instances, officers may choose to search your phone if they think that the data may be lost through remote wiping if they don’t do it at that moment. But still, this isn’t guaranteed to them, and they may still face questions for their actions. This matter’s ambiguity should prompt you to seek legal advice from an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney.
Can the Police Hack My Phone If It Is Passcode Protected?
There is a chance cops cannot access your data on your phone if it is protected. As for text and WhatsApp messages, the police can attempt to get them through the receiver’s phone – but this is not easy.
In case the police get access to your locked phone, have a warrant to search it, and possess the necessary hacking tools, then they will not hesitate to collect information from it. But if your phone is passcode protected and the officers have no means to hack it, then this would be an excellent place to plead the Fifth to avoid being compelled to give out your password.
Can the Law Enforcers Access Third-Party Data on My Phone?
Unfortunately, the police can use third parties to access your information. The position of Third-party doctrine is that individuals should expect reduced privacy when it comes to information shared with third parties.
If the police want information on a cell phone from a third party, they can get it with the right court order. For instance, law enforcers can access your data saved to Apple’s iCloud if they contact Apple with the proper paperwork.
What If an Illegal Cell Phone Search Was Done Without a Warrant?
Any evidence collected in Pennsylvania without a valid search warrant is subject to the exclusionary rule. This rule stops unlawfully obtained evidence from being used against you in a court of law. Your criminal defense attorney may have to file a “motion to suppress” such evidence that incriminates you.
What Should I Do If the Police Ask for My Cell Phone?
If an officer asks for your phone, ask if s/he has a warrant. Respectfully decline to hand over your cell phone if no warrant is presented.
Even with a warrant, you are not required to give your passcode or biometric unlocking features. Instead, ask to talk to your lawyer first.
Legal Professional to Protect Your Rights
Your first course of action after an arrest should be to call a Lemoyne criminal defense attorney. Your attorney will quickly advise you and speak with the police on your behalf.
If the police seized and searched your cell phone without a warrant or your consent, your Fourth Amendment rights might have been violated. You need a legal professional to defend you and protect your rights—call (717) 612-4840 for a confidential consultation.