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When can police officers lawfully search someone’s phone?

On Behalf of | Jun 6, 2024 | Internet Privacy- Individual Rights |

Most people in the United States rely heavily on smartphones for daily life. People look up when their local grocery store closes for the night or find directions to an auto repair shop using their phones. People also use their mobile devices to communicate with friends and family, research interesting topics and entertain themselves.

Some of what people access on the internet may seem questionable to others. Occasionally, someone’s online activity might even come close to violating the law. It is only natural that people feel defensive about others scrutinizing what they do with their phones. Particularly when someone must interact with a police officer, they may worry about what an officer could find while going through their phone.

When is it legal for police officers to conduct a search of someone’s phone or other handheld electronic devices?

Searches generally require consent or a warrant

Many people make the mistake of providing their passcodes, pins or biometric passes to police departments so that they can go through a digital device. The average person believes that cooperating with law enforcement is the best way to exonerate themselves when they come under suspicion of criminal activity.

However, those well-intentioned individuals often grow to regret their choices, as police officers might find records of activity that look suspicious. From tiny details that could contribute to claims that someone had criminal intent to accidental visits to a website with questionable content, there are many data records on a device that could put someone at risk of a criminal conviction.

Police officers can theoretically obtain warrants in scenarios where they have claims compelling enough to convince a judge to allow them to search a digital device. In such scenarios, simply deleting search history or old photos isn’t necessarily enough to prevent the state from finding information about prior online activity and device use. Warrants may also apply to data stored by mobile companies and the businesses supporting apps.

Factors ranging from device sharing with friends to inappropriate searches conducted by police officers could help defendants accused of crimes related to technology use prepare a defense strategy. Understanding one’s rights, including protection from unreasonable searches, can be beneficial for anyone facing criminal charges. Those who know the law can take the necessary steps to assert themselves when they’ve been accused of breaking it.