What Can the Police Look at on Your Phone Without a Warrant?

May 23, 2014
by The Atkins & Markoff Team

What Can the Police Look at on Your Phone Without a Warrant?

As cell phones become more and more a storage place for all kinds of sensitive information, including bank PINs, credit card information and passwords, the issue of how much access the police can have to your phone without getting a warrant is cause for concern for many people. This question was presented before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently, in a case involving a man who was convicted of drug-related charges. His lawyers argued that police had conducted an unlawful search when they looked through his cell phones, one of which was on his person and two of which were in his vehicle, in order to verify the phone number of each device.

Based on the man’s conviction, the court disagreed with his lawyers, saying that merely checking the number of a phone found on a suspect is no different from searching a container that the individual might be carrying when stopped by the police. The judge compared the cell phone search to police checking the inside of a diary to confirm the owner’s name and address without looking at any interior pages.

“What happened in this case was similar but even less intrusive, since a cell phone’s number can be found without searching the phone’s contents, unless the phone is password protected – and on some cell phones even if it is,” wrote the judge. He pointed out that it took only two pushes of a button on the man’s iPhone to locate and retrieve the phone’s number, and a single push of a button to do the same on his Blackberry. The officers used these phone numbers to subpoena call records from the wireless carriers.

For most people, cell phones have become not only a tool for placing calls, but have also taken on the role of camera, computer and USB device as well. In light of the judge’s ruling, it seems it would be a safe bet to use password protection on all cell phones if you don’t want police looking at anything on your phone without a warrant. This is especially evidenced by a recent U.S. Circuit Court ruling, in which the judge determined that authorities could not compel someone to decrypt a file on his computer, indicating that the act violated that person’s Fifth Amendment rights.