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When a police officer asks to search your cell phone, it may be difficult to know if you can legally refuse.
The situations may vary, but in general, arrestees do not have to let the police search their cell phones, even if cops demand it. As one retired California judge told San Francisco's KPIX-TV, officers can only look at a suspect's cell phone with consent, in an emergency, or with a search warrant.
Before you let a cop search your cell phone, consider this:
Officers Can Look If You Let Them
Just like searching your car or your house, police officers can legally search just about anywhere without a warrant if you give them permission to do so. If an officer asks if he or she can search your cell and you say "yes," there's not much stopping him or her from doing just that.
Keep in mind that officers are under no obligation to tell you that you can simply say "no." In fact, they may use threatening tones and make it seem as if denying them is in itself illegal. But while this may be harrowing, police cannot force you to consent to a search of your phone.
Your Phone Can Still Be Taken
Imagine explaining your smartphone to your oldest relative. Like any computer, a smartphone is like a big filing cabinet that may be filled with hundreds of documents, pictures, and contacts. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that while police can take your phone (along with your wallet, keys, etc.) upon your arrest, they cannot take a peek inside that cell phone-sized filing cabinet.
Doing so would violate your Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches, although this may be little comfort if your phone is taken from you. This rule applies whether or not your cell phone is "locked."
Once your cell phone is in police custody, investigators may apply for a search warrant to get inside it. These search warrants must be approved by a judge and include a statement that police have probable cause to believe evidence of a crime is to be found on your phone. Unless there are exigent circumstances, police will need to have a warrant to digitally crack into your phone.
As frightening as it may be, you do have a right to refuse when police ask to search your cell phone.