MY CELL PHONE. CAN THE COPS TAKE AND SEARCH ALL OF MY PICTURES, TEXTS, VOICEMAILS, AND ASK MY CELL PHONE COMPANY FOR A DETAILED HISTORY OF MY WHEREABOUTS WITHOUT A WARRANT?
The short answer is yes. However, they will need a search warrant. Today’s cell phones contain lots of personal private information. Pictures, contact information, notes, voice mail and text messages etc. etc. Much of this information is readily available on the phone itself but some of it is held by your cell phone carrier. One of the biggest pieces of information is a detailed history of your whereabouts. Times and exact locations of your travels is kept for up to five years by cell phone carriers. This information is called cell-site location information or CSLI.
Under the U.S. Constitution, law enforcement is permitted to perform certain searches of your person and belongings without a warrant and without infringing upoon the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects people against unlawful searches and seizures. This important amendment arose out of the founding fathers concerns against government intrusion into people’s lives. Prior to our independence from Britain, British soldiers, utilizing writs of assistance would, unannounced, enter into people’s homes and rummage through their belongings looking for evidence of crime. These types of reviled searches were one of the primary reasons the quest for independence began. Because of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States presumes law enforcement must seek a search warrant to search and seize our person and effects. Nevertheless, our highest court, has, over the course of past 242 years, carved out exceptions to the rule that a warrant is necessary to perform a search.
For example, if you get pulled over for suspected DUI and there is an empty bottle of bourbon on the back seat, chances are that the police will be able to search the car without a warrant. Additionally, using the DUI example, if you are arrested for DUI, the police may search your car if they intend to impound it. This is called an inventory search and if additional evidence of criminal activity appears during this type of search you will be charged with additional crimes. Moreover, law enforcement is permitted to search your car if they have probable cause of criminal activity. For example, if you get pulled over for speeding and the police officer smells the scent of pot coming from inside your car while he or she hands you your speeding ticket, they may search you and your vehicle. Even if it was your buddy you just dropped who was smoking the joint, be prepared for a comprehensive search. No warrant is necessary.
But can they search your cell phone? Can law enforcement look at your text messages, listen to your voice mail messages or simply call Verizon and ask them to disclose your whereabouts for the past five years without a warrant? The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on this issue and it has determined that the cell phone is off limits unless a search warrant is involved.
The SCOTUS in Riley v. California and Carpenter v. United States has ruled that your cell phone and data held by your cell phone carrier cannot be searched without a search warrant. The high Court has ruled that people have an expectation of privacy regarding the contents of their phones and their whereabouts. While there may be certain circumstances where law enforcement may search a phone without a warrant, the high Court appears to treating your phone much like your home and a search warrant will need to be secured before your iPhone can be explored by the government.