Can Police Read Your Texts Without a Warrant?

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Consider the following, you are driving home from work on the 110 and accidentally change lanes without signaling. Johnny Law lights you up and you pull to the side of the road and grab your registration. When the officer asks to see your insurance card, you pull it up on your smartphone. The cop takes your information back to his car and you get a text message from friends about meeting at a local bar. The cop searches your phone and sees the text and believes you may be driving under the influence.

You had a beer with your boss before heading home, and you’re afraid of failing a breathalyzer. The cop places you in handcuffs and you call a Los Angeles DUI Attorney as soon as possible. But the real question is, did the cop have a right to read that text message in the first place? The simple answer is no, but the larger problem is more complex than a one word answer. To understand the legality of the police reading your text messages you must know your fourth amendment rights, when they can freely search your phone, and how police search your messages.

The fourth amendment to the United States constitution states that, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure…” This amendment was last revised in 1992, when cellphones were the size of a military radio. As technology progressed, the Supreme Court had to determine if the technology is protected by the same rights as our home. In 2014, the Supreme Court cleared up the confusion and ruled that our cellphones deserve the same protection as our home, and the police are required to obtain a warrant to access materials on the phone.

There are several scenarios in which a police officer can legally search your phone without a warrant. The most obvious scenario is the owner of the phone giving permission for the officer to search the cellphone. A more likely scenario is that you have your smartphone set up to show new text messages as a banner that can be read along the top of the screen. If a cop sees a text message like this, then he didn’t need a warrant to read the message because it’s in plain view. The other exceptions are typically the same laws that apply to a cop entering your home without a warrant if they believe someone is in danger, or a crime is happening at that moment they can access the phone.

There are several ways cops can access your phone. The most popular method is using computer software to decipher text messages and reclaim deleted text messages. This program works just like connecting your phone to a computer at home. You connect the phone to a computer, the messages are uploaded, and you can print them out to be used as evidence. This is incredibly easy for the police department, and it doesn’t require them to jailbreak the phone or waste unnecessary funds on expensive methods to hack the password.