When you've been pulled over, is it legal for the police to search your phone? Do they actually need some sort of phone search warrant?
The answer is maybe.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits officers from conducting illegal searches or seizures. There are, however, some exceptions to the general rule.
For example, if you consent to the search of your cell phone, then they are legally allowed to search through the contents. After all, you consented. So, if you do not want the police to search your phone, you shouldn't give them your consent.
And, if the police have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed and that the search may reveal some evidence of crime, it's possible that they may search you even if they originally just stopped you while you were driving for a routine traffic violation. The officer doesn't necessarily need to have probable cause to search your car before he stops you, but if you start behaving suspiciously or belligerently towards a police officer, he may have probable cause.
The same rules generally apply to police officers who come to your door or who stop you on the street. Generally, unless they have suspicion that you were involved in some criminal activity, they cannot just search you without your consent.
Unless, that is, you have been arrested. At this point, the officer can conduct a search of you, which would be a search incident to an arrest. There may be limitations to the search, and whether or not an officer can search the contents of the phone is unclear: the law is still evolving.
Though if an officer gets a search warrant that includes your phone, then all bets are off, and most likely they can peruse your cell phone at will.
Why should you be concerned about cell phone searching? Well, in Michigan, police have been reported to use electronic devices that can extract data off your phone during traffic stops.
If something similar happens to you, you should be aware that for police to search your cell phone, they do usually need one of two things: something like a phone search warrant, or your consent.
- Tips for Talking to the Police (EFF)
- Searches and Seizures: The Limitations of the Police (FindLaw)
- Michigan Cell Phone Fight: Cops Scanning Phones? (FindLaw Blotter)
- What are my Rights During a Traffic Stop? (FindLaw Blotter)