The information contained on a person’s cell phone can provide invaluable information to law enforcement. When, though, can police seize and search a cell phone? Are there are any legal safeguards to protect the vast amount of private data that is likely stored on your cell phone? Ohio courts have indicated that its citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights are important and should be protected.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, police may not seize your cell phone unless they have a warrant based on probable cause.
Police may, however, take custody of your cell phone if they believe that there is a threat to the information it contains. For example, if police have probable cause to believe that there is information on your phone that connects you to criminal activity, or implicates you in a crime, they may be able to lawfully seize your phone if they believe you may erase or delete the information before they can secure a warrant.
In 1983, the United States Supreme Court determined that a seizure of property is less intrusive than a search. If the state’s interest in preserving evidence is significant, police may lawfully seize your property to do so. However, the lawful seizure does not automatically mean that police may search your cell phone.
In 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court held that in most situations law enforcement may not search your cell phone without a warrant. Specifically, unless there are immediate safety concerns or other exigent circumstances, police are prohibited from searching a cell phone. This is true regardless of whether the phone was seized to prevent the destruction of information or evidence. Once police have seized your cell phone they must still (in most situations) get a warrant based on probable cause. Without a warrant, police may not lawfully search your phone.
There are exceptions to the warrant requirement in Ohio. Ohio courts have established seven exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the presence of exigent circumstances. What are exigent circumstances, though? There is no hard and fast definition for exigent circumstances. Rather, exigent circumstances may exist when there is imminent danger, when evidence is at risk of being destroyed, or a suspect is believed to be an immediate flight risk. Exigent circumstances are those that require immediate action to prevent harm or the destruction of evidence.
It is up to the police to prove that exigent circumstances existed at the time of a search. In most cases, police will have to prove that there was imminent danger and that a search of your cell phone was the only way to reasonably prevent or escape that danger. Exigent circumstances are determined on a case-by-case basis. Factors including the degree of the immediate threat of danger and the amount of time it would take the obtain a warrant would be relevant to determining if an exigent circumstance existed.
Ohio has indicated that there is a strong interest in protecting the personal data on your cell phone. As a result, it has ruled that Ohio police must obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before they may search your phone. Police may, however, have more latitude in determining whether it is proper to seize your cell phone without a warrant. The potential destruction or loss of evidence may create an exigent circumstance that could excuse an otherwise unlawful seizure of your cell phone.
If the police have seized and/or searched your cell phone without your permission it is important to contact an experienced Columbus criminal defense attorney immediately. If police violated your Fourth Amendment rights any evidence the prosecution should not be allowed to use any evidence or information that results from that violation.
An experienced Ohio criminal defense attorney will fight to have illegally obtained evidence against you disqualified. The less evidence the prosecution has to support their case, the better your chances of having the charges against you reduced or dropped. Contact our office today for a free consultation and to learn more about your Constitutional protections against unlawful searches and seizures.