You have rights when it comes to police interactions. If you have been stopped by the police or if you have been placed under arrest, you do have the right to remain silent during the arrest process. You also have the right to consult with an attorney and the right to a speedy trial. Additionally, you have the right not to be subjected to any unreasonable searches or seizures of your private property. Here, we want to discuss whether this right to unreasonable search and seizure extends to your cell phone or another type of mobile device.
The Police Need a Warrant to Search a Cell Phone in Pennsylvania
In 2014, the US Supreme Court decided that the police cannot access your cell phone without a warrant. In the case Riley v. California, the Supreme Court decided that the privacy protections under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented law enforcement officials from searching a person’s phone.
Even though the police may be able to seize your phone without a warrant in certain circumstances, they cannot access the data on the phone unless a warrant is issued by the court.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, this US Supreme Court ruling remains steadfast. In fact, this ruling remains true even if a person does not have their phone protected by a passcode, pattern lock, facial recognition, or fingerprint. When we look at the 2018 case Commonwealth v. Fulton, we can see that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that any measure to access a person’s cell phone data by a law enforcement official without a warrant violates the phone owner’s Fourth Amendment rights set forth in the Riley decision mentioned above.
In the Fulton case, the police accessed the defendant’s unprotected phone without a warrant. A lower court allowed the evidence obtained from the phone to be used against the defendant, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the decision. In order to properly understand the Court’s thinking, we want to take a statement directly from the ruling:
“The Superior Court erred by finding the warrantless searches of [the defendant’s] flip phone was permissible because they only minimally intruded on his privacy interests, removing this case from the protection provided to cell phones by the United States Supreme Court in [Riley v. California]. All evidence obtained from the warrantless searches of [the defendant’s] flip phone, including the phone’s assigned number, the existence of [a witness] and all of the information obtained through her meeting with police, were subject to suppression as fruits of the illegal searches.”
What if the Police Ask for Your Cell Phone?
With your legal protections in mind, we want to discuss some other things that you can do if the police ask you for access to your cell phone:
- Ask if you are free to leave. Always ask if you are free to leave. If you are not under arrest or being detained, then you are not required to submit any police questioning.
- Ask if the police officer has a warrant. Ask if the police officer has a warrant to search your phone. If they say yes, ask to see the warrant. Warrants in Pennsylvania should clearly describe the location and scope of the search that has been authorized, and it may not specifically mention a phone.
- Do not voluntarily consent to a search of your cell phone. If a police officer asks to see your cell phone, politely decline. The voluntary consent of your phone, even if you are not aware that you are consenting to a search, could make many of your legal protections go away.
- Do not enter your passcode. If your phone is protected by any type of passcode, do not enter the code. You cannot be forced to provide access to your phone via passcode or pattern lock.
- Contact a criminal defense attorney. You need to speak to a skilled criminal defense attorney right away if you think that law enforcement officials are building a case against you or if you have been placed under arrest.