It may have been late when you were speeding home or maybe your license plates were expired. Whatever the reason, you knew you'd be explaining your situation with an officer when you saw the police lights in your rearview mirror. As you were motioned to drive to the road's shoulder, you reviewed the lessons you'd been taught about interaction with law enforcement: speak respectfully to the officer, clearly explain your situation, avoid making quick moves and stay calm.
License and registration? Handing those over is a no-brainer. Cellphone? This request requires a little more thought. You don't want to cause trouble, but your cellphone stores personal information that you don't feel comfortable sharing. On your phone, you may have documented almost all aspects of your life: friends in your list of contacts, correspondence through e-mails or texts, photos or internet searches saved on your hard drive. What could be an innocent message or photo could be misinterpreted by one with the proper motivation. You don't want to cause trouble, but you want to protect your privacy.
Thanks to a 2014 ruling by the Supreme Court, you don't have to worry about compromising your privacy in order to secure your safety. In a unanimous decision, the justices extended this protection to those who have been arrested and also those being questioned by the police. Absent special circumstances, police officers do not have the right to search and seize cellphones without a warrant.
As is the case with most aspects of the law, there are certain situations in which your phone may be confiscated. It's helpful to know what they are so that you can best protect your rights and your privacy. Should the following scenario unfold, you will be required to provide your phone:
1. You voluntarily give the police your phone.
While your parents may have taught you to be polite and comply with an officer's requests, offering a cellphone is one request you should not obey. If an officer asks to see your phone and you hand it over, the officer will not need a warrant to search your phone. Even if you agree to give it to the police and then rescind the offer, it's possible that the officer can keep your phone. You may think that your refusal to provide the phone will make you look guilty; however, it is your right to retain your cellphone.
2. Your phone poses a threat to cause harm.
Should police officers have reason to believe that your phone can be used as a weapon, they may seize it. In this situation, officers have the right to examine the components of the phone, such as the battery and the case. They may not compel you to give them your password so that they can access information saved on your phone's hard drive.
3. There are exigent circumstances,
This phrase refers to emergencies or pressing situations. For example, your phone may contain incriminating evidence that officers fear is at risk of being destroyed. Additionally, your phone may be taken if it can help officers locate a suspect fleeing a crime scene or find an injured individual.
The Supreme Court justices recognized the wealth of personal information that can be made public in a police search and so should you. Information that you have stored on your cellphone is yours to safeguard. It's your right. Protect it.
Those who believe that their privacy rights have been abused by an illegal search and seizure are advised to seek the counsel of a knowledgeable attorney.