Can The Police Force You to Unlock Your Phone?

December 15, 2022 by Madison Ferguson in California  Rights  
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Tell Them They Aren’t Allowed

In the last several years, technology has advanced at a breakneck pace. Most of us rely extensively on technology in our daily routines and activities. We depend heavily on our smartphones, which are handy and functional. Most people think it’s fantastic that technology is improving, but that’s before you learn that police officers may use it against you. Americans are shielded from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that law enforcement must get a warrant or obtain the agreement of the person being searched, with certain exceptions. This protection also applies to your phone, meaning the police cannot examine it without a warrant or your consent.

No, they cannot!

When a court or magistrate issues a search warrant, a police officer has the authority to search a designated location for evidence, regardless of the owner’s agreement. Probable cause or proof that a crime has been committed must be shown by law enforcement to obtain a warrant. When a warrant is issued, it lays out precisely what law enforcement may and cannot do.

Exceptions to the warrant or authorization necessary for law enforcement to examine your phone are few and far between. According to Colorado and North Carolina law firm blogs, if you’re detained, a police officer may grab and retain your phone while they wait for a search warrant. In order to conduct a search, they must first get a warrant but they may remove the phone’s battery or casing. Without a warrant, the police may examine your phone if they have grounds to fear the evidence on it will be lost. They can also search your phone without a warrant or permission if there is a time-sensitive emergency—the Supreme Court used hypothetical situations where a bomb may soon detonate or child abduction as examples of such emergencies in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court case that established the warrant requirement for phone searches. If you don’t permit them, they’ll need a warrant to examine your phone unless one of the exclusions applies lawfully. It is possible that even if the authorities acquire a warrant to examine your phone, they may be unable to compel you to unlock it based on your location.

It’s Often Up to You and Your Phone’s Lock Method

Currently, police officers have the authority to demand that you unlock your mobile phone using face recognition and fingerprint identification. When unlocking your phone, police officers have no right to demand that you disclose your passcode or pattern.

As a police officer approaches your phone, you demonstrate that you know the passcode/password by unlocking it with a password. To unlock your phone, you must effectively state, “I know what the lock code is,” even if you do not say it out loud. Unlocking your phone using your passcode or password is not something a police officer can make you accomplish since it would require you to produce the contents of your thoughts. It’s protected by the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits self-incrimination. Alternatively, police officers may compel you to unlock your phone using your face since you’re not revealing any information by merely holding the phone in front of your face. Just like with facial recognition, police officials may compel you to unlock your phone by placing your finger or thumb on the scanner. This is a non-testimonial act that does not reveal any information about you.

If you have a lock on your phone, you could be tempted to believe that the information you save on it is safe. That may be the case regarding the general public being unable to view the information on your mobile. Despite this, police officers may now enter your home without being detected by face recognition or a fingerprint lock. To guarantee police officers cannot compel you to open your phone, use a pattern lock or passcode/password.

People’s rights must be preserved despite a gap between technology and the law. Somehow still, a patchwork of court rules on whether people must unlock their phones leaves them exposed to law police misbehavior and rights breaches. To detect constitutional infractions and have evidence suppressed, they may go back and examine everything that transpired, from arrest to filing formal charges. If you’ve been charged with a crime, you should speak with an attorney to learn your rights and options.

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How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

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