Can Cops Search Your Cell Phone?

Josh Blackman,

Release Date
August 26, 2014


Civil Liberties

You’re at a party. The police show up. The next thing you know, a cop is asking to see your cell phone. What do you do? If you don’t know your rights, you could be putting yourself – and your future – at risk. In this must-see video, Professor Josh Blackman details the ways in which recent court rulings have been defining and limiting the boundaries of cell phone content searches.
Your life is in your phone. Know how to save it.

Learn More:
Summary and links to the Riley v. California decision.
More background and analysis of the case.
Commentary on what it could mean for the future.

It’s a Saturday night and you’re at a house party. Suddenly, the police show up and they start arresting people for underage drinking and other violations. The next thing you know you’re in cuffs and the police search your pockets. They take out your cell phone to look at your recent text messages for evidence.
What should you do? Tell them they need a warrant.
A recent Supreme Court case just affirmed this. The police do not have the right to search your cell phone when you get arrested. That includes your texts, phone calls, photos, Uber receipts, anything without a warrant or your consent.
In the case of Riley vs. California, following a traffic violation the police arrested a guy and searched his cell phone. By looking at pictures on his phone, they were able to link him to a shooting. On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the search was unconstitutional. All nine justices agreed; if you want to search a phone – get a warrant.
Cell phones aren’t the same as other personal property that police are allowed to search, and can’t be treated like that because they contain far more personal data. Searching your phone is an invasion of privacy as serious as searching your home. The police need a warrant to justify that action.
So if you find yourself in a tough spot, and the police are asking to search your phone, remain calm and polite, but tell them you do not consent. Remember, you have the right to remain silent, and always ask for a lawyer.
You might be wondering what all this means for your computers, tablets, cameras, or other devices. While the Riley vs. California ruling isn’t specific, the Supreme Court implied that the same restrictions may apply. And remember, police can still search your pockets and items such as your bag and packs of cigarettes.
I’m Josh Blackman, constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. Tune in for a live one hour discussion with me to learn more about your constitutional rights and other privacy concerns.
Remember, privacy is a constitutional right until you give it up.