Can police search my phone without permission?

On Behalf of | Jun 24, 2021 | Criminal Law |

Immediately following an arrest in Missouri, it’s normal for the police to investigate your person for any weapons or contraband, as well as any personal items that could potentially be used as evidence. For most people, this means police are going to find at least two important items: your wallet, and your phone.

One of the most common questions we receive regards the latter. Below, we’ll discuss the law when it comes to cell phone access following an arrest in Missouri, and whether a police officer can access your phone.

Police almost always need a warrant

The 4th Amendment, which concerns a citizen’s right to privacy and governs what law enforcement can and cannot access, protects against unreasonable search and seizure; and pursuant to the most recent rulings via the Supreme Court of the United States, prevents police from accessing your phone without a warrant.

Because a cell phone contains many important or intimate details about a person’s life, it is not treated as a simple item of the person like a backpack, purse, or pocket. This means that the police cannot just open up your phone and start swiping through menus following an arrest without your permission.

In an era where virtually everyone carries a cell phone, this is vital for Missouri citizens to remember. Police may try to confuse you, or request that you unlock your phone for them; remember your rights, refuse to unlock your phone, and refer them to your attorney.

Is all of my cell phone data protected?

No. There are some cases where law enforcement can still access certain information from your phone, even without your consent or a warrant, when data is routed through third parties.

You know how when you install an app,  many ask for permission to access certain parts of your phone, and in many cases, send data back to the app owners’ servers? In many cases, this kind of information can be readily accessed by law enforcement. Things like messages, uploads, pictures, or metadata sent through these apps could be accessed by police without a warrant.

Keep in mind, however, that this does not mean your phone isn’t still heavily protected under the 4th Amendment. For example, police still need a warrant to access your phone’s location to identify your location. Beyond this, the police certainly cannot compel you to unlock your phone for them to view immediately following an arrest.

Unfortunately, many of the laws protecting against police searches are complex. This is why an experienced Missouri criminal defense attorney is an invaluable ally, and can help you understand the best ways to protect your civil rights before, during, and after an arrest.