Police Searching Cell Phones: Legal or Not?

Before a police officer can search a suspect’s cell phone, they typically need a search warrant or probable cause.  Since most people use their phones to document and communicate various aspects of their daily activities, and their lives in general, privacy becomes an issue.  A common legal issue that arises, especially when someone is suspected of a crime, is whether the police officer automatically has probable cause to search a cell phone for evidence of the crime, or whether there must a more specific connection between the suspected crime and the phone.

State laws widely differ on this issue

As with nearly all criminal laws, each state has its own statutory laws, as well as its court-established case law that governs searches and seizures and probable cause.  On the specific issue of when a cell phone can be searched without a prior search warrant being obtained, the law varies as well.

A specific “nexus” may be required

For example, in Massachusetts, a specific “nexus” is required. Specifically, the Massachusetts Supreme Court determined that even in cases where there is probable cause to suspect someone of a crime, police are not allowed to seize or search his or her cellular telephone to look for evidence unless they have information establishing that specific evidence is likely to be found there.  Many other courts have ruled that the mere fact that a suspect owns a cell phone doesn’t provide probable cause to search the phone.

But what constituted a sufficient “nexus?”

An Arkansas court found a sufficient nexus between a suspect’s cell phone and a homicide based on the fact that the suspect was in possession of the phone on the day of the shooting; he was “working with at least one other person when the homicide was committed”; and a confidential informant provided information suggesting the defendant’s involvement in the homicide on the day it was committed. Through this evidence, the court inferred that the phone had been used to communicate with others regarding the shooting.

The state of the law in Alabama

In Gracie v. State, the Court of Criminal held that the State is not required to first obtain a search warrant before conducting a search of a cell phone seized pursuant to a warrantless search. The Court reasoned that, because the cell phone was immediately associated with the arrestee’s person, police officers have the authority to search its contents.

If you have questions regarding warrants, probable cause, or any other criminal defense matters, please contact Ketcham Law for a consultation by calling us at (205) 296-4233.

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