CELL PHONE SEARCHES LEGAL?
Most citizens are raised with a healthy respect for law enforcement. We rely on law enforcement to do the right thing to protect us. But it’s frustrating to hear when certain officers take advantage of their position and overstep their authority. If we’re being realistic, I think most citizens would allow a police officer to search their possessions if asked. But I believe that’s partly because most citizens simply do not understand that they have a right to say no.
So let’s say a police officer stops you in your vehicle or even while you’re walking down the sidewalk, and in the process of his stop he asks if he can see your cell phone. Is he allowed to do that? The short answer is that a police officer cannot simply order you to give up your cell phone for search. Last summer, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that police could not generally search cell phones without first getting a warrant. In doing so, the Court acknowledged that cell phones today are not simply portable devices used to make telephone calls. Cell phones hold a lot of personal information. I for one would not feel comfortable allowing any stranger, especially law enforcement, access to my personal and private information.
But in what circumstances can a police officer search my cell phone? Generally there are two circumstances – by permission or by warrant. If you are stopped or detained by a police officer, that officer may only search your cell phone if he has a valid search warrant signed by a judge or if you give the officer permission to search. As with all privacy protections we hold as citizens, we also hold the right to waive those protections. And some citizens may be waiving those protections without even thinking about it. Recently, Texas law was amended to allow drivers to show proof of vehicle insurance by pulling it up on their cell phones, rather than carrying around a hard copy. While convenient, I would urge anyone to think twice before handing their cell phone over to a police officer.
I can already hear some of you responding to this issue now. If you’re a law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide, why not just allow a police officer to look at your phone if asked? While I completely understand that mindset, to me it’s always about the broader picture. We cannot allow the government, and law enforcement as an extension of government, to overstep its bounds. We, as citizens, have certain privacy protections that have been put in place to protect our individual rights. I believe it’s extremely important that the government understand and respect our privacy rights – regardless of whether or not we have anything to hide. By waiving any of these rights, even if seemingly harmless at the moment, we allow the government greater access which could lead to a gradual erosion of the rights we hold so dear.