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Can Police Search Your Phone Without a Warrant?

November 20, 2019

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Nearly everyone today has a mobile phone they carry with them. Generally speaking, these are usually newer phones that allow you to connect to the Internet, allow you to send text messages, and use apps for daily tasks. Although smartphones today are extremely handy, they also leave a footprint of evidence that is easily traceable by law enforcement. Police will often try to obtain a person’s phone in order to search it. They may even order a suspect to enter the code to unlock the phone. So, are police allowed to search your phone? Do they need a warrant?

Searches Without a Warrant

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement needs a warrant to search you or any of your property, although this sometimes doesn’t apply to searches of vehicles. However, law enforcement does need a warrant to search your phone. There are some exceptions to this law, but they are limited.

If you give consent to law enforcement to search your phone, you have waived your constitutional rights that protect you from illegal searches. For this reason, no one should ever allow a police officer or any other official to search their phone. Often, law enforcement will demand the phone instead of asking for it. They do this so a person thinks they have an obligation to hand over their phone. You do not, and you should never give an officer your phone.

Plain View Doctrine

In cases when evidence is in plain view, police also don’t need a warrant to conduct a search. This means that if a police officer can clearly see evidence of criminal activity, they can seize your phone without a warrant.

The plain view doctrine didn’t really apply to phones 15 years ago, when the devices were still quite small and had, at most, a very tiny screen. Today though, phones are becoming bigger and bigger, and the images on the screen are crystal clear. If an officer sees something on the phone, such as a text message, that incriminates you, they can take your phone.

Riley v. California

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 upheld a person’s constitutional rights in Riley v. California. The highest court in the country made a simple statement that applies to all states, including Pennsylvania. Law enforcement is not allowed to search a person’s phone without a warrant. This holds true even if the phone was obtained during a lawful search. To search the actual phone, police are required to obtain a separate warrant.

Have You Been Charged with a Crime? Call Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you’ve been charged with a crime or think law enforcement has encroached on your constitutional rights, you need the help of an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense attorney. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, we know how to successfully challenge unlawful searches to get evidence suppressed and give you the best chance of retaining your freedom. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 to schedule your free consultation so we can review your case.



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