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Can the police search my cellphone?

The U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by police. That is why, as many people know, North Carolina police usually need a warrant to search their property, such as their home or even their vehicle in some cases.

But what about your cellphone? This device is something you have on your person nearly all the time. Moreover, it contains a significant amount of personal information, whether that is your private messages, search history or even your bank account information. So, does the Fourth Amendment protect your cell phone too?

Do police need a warrant to search your phone?

This is a complex matter – just like anything involving new technology. However, the Supreme Court ruled on this matter in 2014, stating that:

  • A cellphone can include as much personal content as someone’s home and should be treated the same
  • Police, therefore, need a warrant to look at the contents of the cellphone

There are exceptions where police do not need a warrant, such as emergency situations. This applies to most situations involving a potential police search. However, a warrant is generally necessary to search the contents in the phone, even after police arrest someone.

When it comes to data, things get more complicated

Not everything you use or access on your cellphone is actually saved on the device itself. Most cellphone plans come with a data plan, allowing you to use your phone – and the internet – nearly anywhere you go.

Using data requires the cellphone to connect and communicate, so to speak, with other devices. This information is not necessarily contained within your device, so do police still need a warrant for data?

The answer to this question is complex. As of now, it depends on the type of data in question. For example:

  1. The Supreme Court determined that police need to obtain a warrant to access or utilize cell site location information (CSLI) data, or the data created or used when a cellphone connects to a nearby cell tower.
  2. However, data that goes through a third party is subject to the third-party doctrine. Essentially, when individuals use GPS or save things to the cloud, cellphone companies can often access this information. Police might not have to obtain a warrant to review information like this if it is by way of a third party that already has an individual’s consent.

The combination of technology’s rapid advancement and legal nuance can be overwhelming, but it is important to understand the basic issues regarding them. After all, knowing your rights is the first step to protecting them.