The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the police from making unreasonable searches of people, homes, or belongings. Whether a criminal search is legal depends on the facts involved. In many cases, evidence gathered during an illegal criminal search may not be used in court. In recent years, criminal searches involving cell phones and other electronic devices have become a controversial legal issue.
Police Can Search if You Give Consent
If you give a police officer permission to search your person or your property, the officer can conduct a search and seize any evidence that is found. For example, imagine that a police officer stops you on the street. The officer asks to check your text messages to make sure you were not involved in a nearby drug deal. If you agree to let the officer search your cell phone, the search is legal.
Search Warrants Require Probable Cause
Most criminal searches of a suspect's property require a warrant. A search warrant is a court order that allows the police to conduct a search to find evidence of a crime. The officer must convince a judge that there is a valid reason to believe that evidence of a crime is located in a specific place. This valid reason is known as probable cause.
Once a judge issues a search warrant, the law enforcement officer can legally carry out a search without the suspect's permission. Warrants can authorize searches of homes, cars, and personal belongings, including cell phones and other electronic devices.
Searching Without a Warrant Is Sometimes Legal
In some cases, police officers can conduct a search without a warrant. For example, they can search a person who has been arrested for weapons, illegal goods, or other evidence of a crime. In some states, they can also search a cell phone or other electronic devices in a suspect's possession when arrested. The police may also search your home or car without a warrant if they have probable cause and believe that you will destroy the evidence of a crime before a judge can issue a warrant.
Laws About Searching Electronic Devices Are Changing
The law surrounding the search of cell phones, GPS units, and other electronic devices remains uncertain. Courts have taken different positions on whether the police can search the data stored on a computer or a cell phone when a suspect is arrested. For example, California's highest court ruled that the police may download text messages from an arrested person's cell phone.
On the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police need a search warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect's car while it is parked in his driveway.
A Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding criminal searches, particularly searches of cell phones, GPS units, and other electronic devices, is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal defense lawyer.