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Can a Police Officer Search Your Phone Without Permission?

Posted on August 1, 2023 in

It’s easy to think of the police as all-powerful, but do they have the right to search your cell phone without permission? While it’s important to remain respectful, and under Arizona law, you must comply with an officer’s requests to roll down your window during a traffic stop, supply your name, and show ID, you are not compelled to answer any other questions. Further, the police may only search your vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause, which means reason to believe you’ve committed a crime. However, in Arizona, the police do not have the right to search your phone without a warrant. They may ask you to unlock your phone and hand it to them to view, but you don’t have to comply. You have the constitutionally guaranteed right to refuse unless the police produce a warrant, and at this point, it’s a good idea to decline to answer questions without an attorney present.

Why is Searching Your Phone Different Than Searching Your Vehicle?

The police cannot search a car without a warrant if they don’t have probable cause or a reason to believe you’ve committed a crime. Doing so is a violation of your rights and can result in a dismissal of any charges they bring against you. 

What you can hide in your car is limited; therefore, the police can search your vehicle if they have good reason to believe you’ve committed a crime, but because a cell phone gives access to immense amounts of data, including sensitive information such as banking data and medical history, the police cannot search your device without a warrant, regardless of probable cause. However, they can take away your phone and hold it as evidence while obtaining a warrant if you’re arrested.

In today’s digital age, police officers can produce a warrant in less than 15 minutes in most circumstances. If they do produce a warrant, ask to review the warrant before handing over your phone. The warrant must include your name, your correct address, a deadline for the search of your phone, and the signature of a judge in your jurisdiction. 

Understanding “Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”

As an American citizen and Arizona resident, you’re protected by the Constitution against unreasonable searches. This is part of your right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. Cell phone service providers store data for up to seven years. Because access to this data reveals a history of cell site locations during that time period it shows exactly where the phone’s owner lives, where they’ve traveled, who they visit, where they shop, and much more. The Supreme Court ruled that this type of highly sensitive data deserves a high level of protection under the individual’s right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. A warrantless search of an individual’s cell phone data constitutes an unreasonable invasion of that person’s privacy.

Under constitutional protection against unreasonable searches, a cell phone is more like a home than a car. Like a home, searching a cell phone requires a warrant, not probable cause alone. In fact, today’s cell phones commonly hold more private information than most people store in their homes.

Remember, while the fourth amendment protects you from unreasonable searches—including of your phone—the fifth amendment gives you the right to remain silent in order to avoid self-incrimination. It’s important to take full advantage of these rights under the fourth and fifth amendments until you have an attorney present. If you voluntarily unlock your phone and answer an officer’s questions, you’re giving up those rights and protections granted to you by the Constitution.

A criminal defense attorney in Phoenix can help navigate your legal rights in a potential lawsuit regarding if your fourth amendment rights were infringed upon.