Citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment as well as Article I Section 9 of the Texas Constitution. In most cases, police officers can only search your smartphone with a valid warrant. Under Texas rules, even if you are arrested, you can refuse to unlock your phone for law enforcement unless they have a warrant.
Exceptions to the rule
In some cases, police obtain access to a person’s phone without a warrant. They do that by getting your permission, which is never a good idea if you are asked. Also, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure allows officers to search your phone when exigent circumstances exist. What does “exigent” mean? Good question. Neither federal nor Texas laws offer a definition. But police will argue they don’t need a warrant in the following situations:
- Protecting against imminent death or danger
- Avoiding the destruction of evidence
- Protecting property, such as stopping a burglary or a fire
- Pursuing a felon trying to flee from police
Bear in mind that none of these situations apply to the vast majority of interactions with officers. They may only come into play if you try to run from the police.
Other protections for citizens
While courts are somewhat mixed over safeguarding your phone’s data, many previous rulings lean toward protecting citizens’ rights when a warrant is not issued. This includes preventing police from:
- Using data from your phone’s locked screen as evidence.
- Accessing your stored data through third parties, such as your cell phone provider.
In some situations, law enforcement may claim exigent circumstances exist. If they cannot prove their actions were justified, the evidence obtained may be excluded by a judge. Another example of illegally-obtained evidence happens when police have a search warrant but discover evidence outside the scope of the document.
Our smartphones contain just about every intricate detail of our lives, so it’s crucial not to allow police access without a valid warrant. If you are arrested, exercise your Fifth Amendment rights by not answering their questions and asking to speak to a lawyer. Experienced criminal defense attorneys understand police tactics and can protect you from illegal searches and seizures.