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How far can a cell phone search go?

On Behalf of | Oct 24, 2022 | Criminal Defense

For police to search your cell phone in Michigan, they usually need to get a warrant first. This is largely owed to a significant ruling in the 2014 Supreme Court case, Riley v. California. But the courts couldn’t be more divided on how far they should be allowed to go when they do have a warrant.

Cell phones aren’t just any piece of technology

Different courts are in stark disagreement over the extent to which a cell phone search should be allowed to go. That seems to be the indication from recent rulings at both the state and federal levels, which are completely scattered on the question of what falls within law enforcement’s purview when searching a cell phone.

The amount of damage that can be done by uncovering the sensitive information stored on the average person’s phone can be devastating. Just looking around on someone’s phone without even digging too deep can easily do a significant and potentially unwarranted amount of damage.

Because of the sensitive information stored on cell phones, the Supreme Court decided the police need to have a warrant before searching one. But if a warrant is obtained, there still may be some legal limitations put on law enforcement.

Disagreement over what’s relevant and what’s not

Some courts argue that giving law enforcement free rein over the data on a person’s phone is an unreasonable invasion of privacy. There’s usually a scope that police have to stay within – but don’t assume that’s the case all the time. It depends on a number of factors, the most important one being the court you’re dealing with.

Depending on the court, there may be restrictions put on the things law enforcement can look at on your phone. Police may be limited to specific data types, certain periods of time or have a limit on the amount of data they are allowed to use. On the other hand, there are some courts that let law enforcement look at whatever they feel is necessary, so the entire contents of your phone may be on the line.

In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court acknowledged the significance of cell phones and made warrants required for police to search them. But what this Supreme Court decision didn’t specify is how far a cell phone search is allowed to go when the authorities do have a warrant.