Are Cellphone Searches Legal in Florida?

If you’re arrested by the police, they can search you if they have a reason to believe a crime is being committed. Things that can be searched under certain circumstances include your pockets, your car, and possessions such as a wallet, backpack, or purse.

Today, many people carry a smartphone or cellular device with them. As a result, it’s reasonable to wonder if Florida police can search your phone for digital evidence. Can the police scroll through your contacts, your texts, your photos, and the rest of the data contained on your phone without a warrant? Whether police can search your phone is a highly contested topic—both inside and outside of the courts.

What the SCOTUS Says About Searches

The U.S. Supreme Court has established the various rules pertaining to the people’s search and seizure rights under the Fourth Amendment, which reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

Since smartphone technology advanced at a rapid rate, it took years before the law offered clarity on the matter. It wasn’t until June of 2014 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in most cases, police officers need a warrant before they can search an arrestee’s cellphone.

Are Cell Phones Containers?

Suppose you were arrested in Tampa, or anywhere else in Hillsborough County. Once you were officially arrested, the arresting officers would be able to search you, and any “containers” that were within your immediate control. A “container” can be a wallet, purse, grocery bags, box, fanny pack, a duffle bag, or anything a person might use to store other items. Even a pack of cigarettes could classify as a container.

While our phones don’t hold physical objects, they contain a lot of information about us. They show where we’ve been, what we’ve searched, who we’ve spoken to, and what we’ve done in our free time.

However, the Supreme Court reasoned that a cellphone is not a typical container that’s able to be searched with reasonable suspicion. This is because cell phones don’t contain physical evidence such as drugs, paraphernalia, and other things law enforcement can look for during a search. Instead, our phones contain digital evidence—something that is treated differently by the law.

Today’s modern cellphones contain digital evidence that is “highly personal” in nature. For example, it may contain very intimate text messages, personal photos, access to one’s email and personal passwords, banking information, and much more.

The Supreme Court has argued that the data found on a cellphone may not be stored on the device at all, but someplace else, such as a remote server. Since the very data on a phone may actually live elsewhere, the “container” definition failed to stand up in court.

What the SCOTUS Says About Searches

The U.S. Supreme Court has established the various rules pertaining to the people’s search and seizure rights under the Fourth Amendment, which reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

Since smartphone technology advanced at a rapid rate, it took years before the law offered clarity on the matter. It wasn’t until June of 2014 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in most cases, police officers need a warrant before they can search an arrestee’s cellphone.

How & When Can Police Search Your Phone?

Some argued that the cellphone could possibly be used as a weapon. In light of that concern, the Supreme Court said that it’s okay for police officers to search the device without a warrant; for example, in search of a blade that’s hidden inside the phone’s case.

Also, officers can take specific steps to prevent loss of the cellphone’s data, which may come in very handy later on. In order to do this, an officer can take the phone from the suspect, shut it off, and place it in a special bag that cannot be penetrated by radio waves. Or, the officer can disable the phone’s automatic encryption lock—those types of measures to prevent the loss of data and potential evidence.

In emergency situations, officers may be allowed to dive into the phone’s data without a warrant and under the most serious of circumstances. For example, an officer can generally access a phone’s data when it may help him or her locate a missing child or thwart a bomb or terrorist attack.

Never Consent to Having Your Phone Searched in Florida

Cellphones are considered to hold some of the most private, personal information. With paperless technology, phones now store many of the documents that 20 years ago, were only stored in home offices, in personal safes, and on people’s home computers. Thus, most police officers need a warrant before they can search an arrestee’s phone.

If you were taken into custody and had your phone confiscated by the arresting officer, remember that law enforcement must have a warrant to search the data and information stored on the device. They may search the device itself, and its case, but your data is protected.

In some instances, a law enforcement officer might ask for your approval to have your phone searched. This is a practice that’s legal under Florida law. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to consent to have your phone searched without a warrant. Even if you know you’re innocent, never allow your rights to be compromised by allowing an officer to search the contents of a device.

Finally, don’t resist an illegal search of your phone if an officer ignores your wishes. Doing so can get you in more trouble with the law. An illegal search of a phone makes evidence collected by that search inadmissible in court. It’s better to have a lawyer assist you than do something that might result in more charges or complications with law enforcement. 

Call Our Tampa Criminal Defense Lawyers for Help

If your phone was searched against your will and without a warrant, our Tampa criminal defense lawyers are standing by to help. As former prosecutors and with thousands of successful cases under our belts, we understand in which precise circumstances police can search your phone and whether the information they find can be used against you. If a search of your cellphone and its information was conducted in violation of your rights, any resulting evidence cannot be used against you. Our attorneys know how to show that such evidence is inadmissible, and we can use all of the resources at our disposal to protect your interests.

Can police search your phone? Find out more about this important topic and discuss your charges with our seasoned team. Contact Thomas & Paulk today for a free consultation!

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