In the digital age, our smartphones have become an essential part of our daily lives, storing vast amounts of personal information. But what happens when law enforcement wants to search your phone?
Police must abide by rules and laws when it comes to searches. And citizens must understand these laws to protect and preserve their rights.
Probable cause and the fourth amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that, in most cases, the police cannot search your phone without a valid reason. To do so, they must establish probable cause, which is a reasonable belief of criminal wrongdoing, and that your phone contains evidence related to that crime.
One of the primary ways police can search your phone is by obtaining a search warrant from a judge. A search warrant is a legal document that authorizes law enforcement to search a specific location, which can include your phone. To get a search warrant, the police must present evidence to the judge and once again demonstrate probable cause.
Consent to search
Law enforcement may also search your phone if you voluntarily consent to the search. This means you provide permission to an officer when they request to conduct a search. Remember that you have the right to refuse and giving consent allows the police to bypass the need for a warrant or probable cause.
Incident to arrest
In some situations, the police can search your phone without a warrant or your consent. With a search incident to arrest, the police may search your person and any items within your immediate control, including your phone. However, this search can only occur to preserve the safety of the officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.
Exigent circumstances refer to emergency situations where there is an immediate need to search a phone to prevent harm, the destruction of evidence or the escape of a suspect. In such cases, the police may search your phone without a warrant. However, these circumstances have narrow definitions, and courts closely scrutinize such searches.
According to Statista, 4.53 million arrests took place in the U.S. in 2021. When it comes to searches related to arrests, police must conduct themselves according to the law. When they do not, rights violations can occur.