Our phones have more than just phone numbers and voicemails. They contain text messages, location information, access to emails and social media and even store files. These devices can have a huge amount of information, all in the palm of our hands. Although convenient, the information could lead to questions if in the wrong hands.
A text, location ping or email could get taken out of context and misinterpreted. We put password protections and biometric unlocking features on our phones to protect this information and avoid this problem. But what if police ask to see our phones? Can they? What are our rights in this type of situation?
We know the police work to gather information to help keep our communities safe, but we also know that we have rights to protect our privacy. How do we balance these two interests?
Interest #1: Privacy.
When it comes to your privacy rights, the Fourth Amendment generally protects against unreasonable searches — and this includes a search of your phone. As a result, police often need to get a warrant in order to search your phone unless there is an exception. One exception is if you give your permission for the search. So if a police officer asks to see your phone and you say yes, you gave them permission to skip the warrant and have a look.
In most cases, you do not need to give them permission. You can often say no.
Interest #2: Safety of our community
If the police need the information to keep the community safe, they should have enough information to support a request to get a warrant. As a result, there is no need to feel bad about asking questions if the police ask to see your phone.