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Know your rights: Can Texas police search your cell phone?

Advanced technology has prompted the use of numerous types of electronic devices that you might not only not have had as a child but, perhaps, had never even heard of. Like most adults in Texas, you likely have multiple devices in your home, some of which you might carry with you when you travel. You probably don't go many places without a cell phone and may also have an iPod, personal computer or other device, as well.

What happens if police pull you over in a traffic stop and ask you to get out of your vehicle? Situations like this typically suggest that the officer in question suspects you of drunk driving or some other crime. If he or she asks to take a look at your cell phone, should you consent? It's critical that you know your rights ahead of time if you hope to protect them during a traffic stop or if police show up at your door.

You eliminate the need for a warrant if you consent

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects you from unlawful search and seizure. However, if a police officer asks to scroll through your cell phone or access your personal computer and you allow it, then he or she no longer needs an authorized search warrant. You have consented to a search.

If, during a traffic stop or an unsolicited visit to your home, a police officer asks to search your electronic devices, you do not have to allow it if he or she cannot produce a valid search warrant. You may respectfully and politely state that you do not consent to a search of your personal property without a warrant.

Exceptions to the rule

There are certain situations whereby police can enter your house or search an electronic device, even if you have not given consent. If an electronic device is at risk for destruction and a law enforcement officer has a reasonable suspicion that it contains evidence to a crime, he or she may search the device without a warrant. 

There are other exceptions to search and seizure rules, as well. This is why it's a good idea to request legal representation if a police officer detains you and is asking questions.

Border searches

What if you're not at home or in your vehicle when police ask to search your electronic device? If you happen to be standing at a U.S. border, then an entirely different set of rules takes precedence. At some borders, officials can merely confiscate the item in question. At others, they don't even need to establish reasonable suspicion to search your device.

Know the facts about warrants

Just because someone says he or she has a warrant doesn't mean it's true. You may ask to see the warrant. To determine if a document is valid, remember that a search warrant is a document signed by a judge that grants permission to search your property, seize your property or place you under arrest.

Warrants expire. Pay attention to the document an officer shows you. There should be a deadline written on it. It should also have a judge's signature, as well as the correct address of search location, your correct name (if warrant is for arrest) and a list of items that the police may seize. Police must serve you with a warrant before executing it.

Protecting your rights

The laws for search and seizure are sometimes ambiguous, such as when there are exceptions to a rule. If you believe a law officer has violated your rights, you can bring the matter to the court's attention. 

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John M. Petruzzi, Attorney at Law
4900 Woodway Drive, Suite 745
Houston, Texas 77056

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