Police officer with someone's phone in his car.

Can the Police Search My Cell Phone Records Without a Warrant?

As with most questions of law, it depends on the facts and the circumstances in your case whether the police could search your cell phone records without a warrant. If your arrest was based on a search of your cell phone, contact a Seattle domestic violence defense attorney immediately to discuss your options. If the warrantless search violated your rights, any evidence obtained during the search might be inadmissible in court.

Searching Cell Phone Records Without a Warrant

Federal and state laws regarding cell phones continue to evolve as technology becomes more advanced. 

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that the police in the case required a search warrant to obtain cell tower location information for the defendant’s cell phone. Chief Justice John Roberts concluded in the majority opinion that the defendant had a privacy interest in records involving his whereabouts that required the government to obtain a search warrant to access. 

Four years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous order in the case of Riley v. California stating that warrantless searches and seizures of the digital content of a cell phone during an arrest violated the Constitutional rights of the defendant. Police officers had the right to examine the phone to ensure that it could not be used as a weapon, but to examine the contents, the officers needed a warrant.

Therefore, it would seem that police officers need a search warrant to obtain the digital content from your cell phone unless the officers have probable cause for a warrantless search. However, that may not always be the case.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled that an abandoned cell phone may be searched without a warrant. The defendant abandoned a stolen vehicle and left his cell phone in the vehicle. The court concluded that since the defendant voluntarily abandoned his cell phone, he also abandoned his privacy interest protected by the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, a search of the cell phone contents by police officers without a warrant did not violate the defendant’s Constitutional right to privacy. 

Whether you agree with the court’s opinion or not, if you abandon your cell phone, it may be subject to a warrantless search by police officers. Furthermore, there could be other exceptions to the rule requiring officers to obtain a search warrant. Additionally, if an officer wants to search your cell phone, he is likely to place the cell phone into evidence during your arrest until he can obtain a search warrant from a judge.

What Should You Do If a Police Officer Requests to Look at Your Cell Phone?

Respectfully state that you do not consent to a search of your cell phone. Do not resist arrest or try to take back the cell phone. Clearly state that you do not give your consent to a search of the contents of your cell phone.  Do not provide your password, fingerprint or other information to unlock the phone, even if the police seize the phone.

As soon as possible, contact an attorney for advice. If police officers searched your cell phone without a warrant, any information obtained during the search could be inadmissible if your legal rights were violated.

What type of Information Can Be Acquired by Searching a Cell Phone?

Cell phones can provide several types of evidence that may or may not be helpful to your case.  First, cell phones can provide location information and times based on when a cell phone connected with a particular cell phone tower.  Cell phones also carry logs of incoming and outgoing calls, text messages, emails, and photographs.  These types of information have been used as evidence to help prove a wide variety of criminal charges including domestic violence, gun, drug, child pornography and other charges.

Contact a Seattle Domestic Violence Attorney for Help

Cell phone records can be used as evidence in a domestic violence case. If you are the subject of an investigation or officers arrest you for domestic violence, call Jennifer Horwitz Law today to discuss your options for fighting the charges.  Jennifer also has extensive experience defending other types of cases that may implicate cell phone evidence, such as:  sexual assault, child pornography, sexual exploitation (including sting operations), drug and gun cases.

DISCLAIMER: This post is intended to share my perspective, insights, and some general information on various aspects of domestic violence cases. It is not legal advice and is not intended to substitute for legal advice. You should consult an attorney to obtain legal advice for your individual situation and case.