Most of us have large amounts of personal data on our cellphones. That’s why we secure access to it through passwords, facial recognition and other security features. However, if a law enforcement officer asks a person to unlock their phone and let them see it, they may be so intimidated or perhaps anxious to show they have nothing to hide that they comply.
But do you have to comply with such a request? What about the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure and your Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination? The men who wrote the U.S. Constitution couldn’t have possibly foreseen cellphones or any of the electronic devices their descendants can’t live without. Courts, however, have ruled on these matters.
Typically, law enforcement officers cannot require you to unlock your phone and cannot search your phone without your permission or a warrant. If you do give your consent, you have the right to limit what they can look at and to revoke your consent if you change your mind.
What are the exceptions?
There are some exceptions. For example, if police believe you have incriminating evidence on your phone that might be destroyed, they can take it without your permission. Further, if a spouse, roommate or someone else can unlock your phone, they can do it for police if you aren’t there. There are also different regulations if you’re at a border checkpoint.
If you refuse to allow police to access your phone without a warrant, it’s important to do so calmly and politely. State your rights, including your right to refuse to answer questions if you choose not to.
If you’ve been arrested and you believe that police violated your rights, it’s essential to tell your attorney. Evidence obtained illegally cannot be used against you. Your attorney can work to ensure that your rights are protected going forward.