Can police search my phone during a Texas traffic stop?
Technology continues to change our world at lightning speed. The emergence of smartphones, for example, has put the power of a computer in nearly every adult’s hands across the globe.
While technology has often led to alterations and updates to our laws, one important tenant remains unchanged: the Fourth Amendment.
Unreasonable search and seizure provided in the Bill of Rights prevent law enforcement from searching cell phones during a traffic stop without a judge-issued warrant. There are rare circumstances in which officials can search someone’s phone without a warrant, which we’ll detail later in this post.
Are you facing criminal charges in North Texas? Do you believe police illegally searched your phone during a traffic stop?
You need to protect your rights. The criminal defense team at Varghese Summersett has more than 150 years of combined experience protecting the rights of its clients in North Texas.
What are my rights if the police ask to search my phone?
The U.S. Supreme Court held in Riley v. California in 2014 that a person’s cell phone can’t be searched by law enforcement without a valid warrant.
The court argued that citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy with their cell phones and the personal information typically stored on such devices.
An officer can ask to look at your phone, but you can deny the request. If an officer views any contents on your phone without consent or a valid search warrant, the potential evidence gathered from the phone is inadmissible in court.
What should you do during a Texas traffic stop?
If the police pull you over in Texas, remember to remain calm. Give the officer your driver’s license and proof of registration, and keep your hands visible, perhaps on the steering wheel. It’s important to be courteous, regardless of the officer’s demeanor.
Can police search my phone? No, you can refuse if an officer asks to search your phone. If you consent to a search, the police can use any found evidence against you.
This is why it’s important to exercise your right to privacy. If you don’t consent to the search, the officer has no option but to stop. If the officer believes the search is necessary, they’ll obtain a warrant. Judges don’t typically grant warrants unless there is a substantial reason for the request.
When can police search my phone during a traffic stop in Texas?
There are a few rare circumstances in which an officer can conduct a warrantless search of your cell phone without consent. According to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, if exigent circumstances exist at the moment, an officer is allowed to search a cell phone.
Exigent circumstances occur when an officer reasonably believes that entry or other relevant prompt action is necessary to prevent physical harm to officers or others, the destruction of evidence, or the escape of a suspected felon.
What does “exigent circumstances” mean in Texas?
There are no Texas or federal laws that specifically define what exigent circumstances are or what is meant by the “emergency doctrine,” to which it is commonly referred.
This gray area can lead to a temptation by law enforcement to quickly decide there is an emergency situation at hand if they want to enter a home or search your phone without a warrant. The desire to label a situation as exigent circumstances can be enticing for law enforcement.
What are examples of exigent circumstances in Texas?
Exigent circumstances are unlikely to be relevant during a traffic stop. They typically apply in cases in which officers need to make a warrantless entry.
Exigent circumstances, however, could be relevant during a traffic stop if the driver flees the scene, abandons the vehicle, and runs into a house or building.
Exigent circumstances typically involve the following:
- Protection from imminent danger or death
- Protection of property (such as extinguishing a fire or stopping a burglary)
- Preventing the destruction of evidence
- Pursuing a fleeing felon
Can police search my phone if I flee during a traffic stop? Not necessarily. An officer must still show they had probable cause to believe the phone contained criminal evidence to search without a warrant.
Can police search my phone after I’ve been arrested?
No. Police officers must have a search warrant to search someone’s phone even after the person has been arrested. The Texas constitution Article I Section 9 confirms a person’s right from unreasonable searches or seizures. You have the right to refuse a search before, during, and after an arrest.
Can police use the information on my phone’s lock screen as evidence?
No. In a case decided in 2020, it was found that law enforcement officers cannot use information gleaned from the lock screen of a cell phone. Any information, such as incoming calls, text messages, or any other incriminating data viewed on the screen of a phone, cannot be used to prove guilt or as evidence in a criminal case.
A judge-issued search warrant is required to use such evidence to prosecute a crime.
Can police search my phone data through a third party?
No. The data stored on your cell phone is protected under the 1986 Stored Communications Act. Internet service providers (commonly known as ISPs) must protect the electronic privacy and stored data of their customers.
This law requires law enforcement agencies to have a valid search warrant before gathering cell phone data and other information found in third-party ISPs.
How could an unlawful search affect my Texas criminal case?
An unlawful search of your phone is treated like any other illegal search of your car or home. Unlawfully obtained evidence is likely to be excluded from being used as evidence in court. In some cases, such circumstances could lead to a case being dismissed, charges dropped, or the prosecution offering a better plea bargain.
An effective defense attorney will properly review the options with you.
Do you believe your cell phone was searched illegally? Call us.
If you’re facing criminal charges and law enforcement searches your cell phone without a valid warrant or your consent, contact Varghese Summersett. Our criminal defense team is adept at dealing with the complexities of such cases and vigorously fights to suppress inadmissible evidence when defending clients.
Any evidence gathered during an unlawful search can’t be used against you. Our defense attorneys will review your case to determine if your rights were violated.
For a free consultation, call us at 817-203-2220.