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Is it legal for the police to search my cell phone?


Not without a search warrant, it isn't legal for the police to search your phone. As a Jacksonville criminal lawyer, I fight illegal searches by the police. The Supreme Court of the State of Florida recently ruled that the police cannot access the personal data on your cell phone without a search warrant. In Smallwood v. Florida, the police recovered Cedric Smallwood's cell phone when they arrested him for the robbery of a convenience store in Jacksonville. The phone was in Smallwood's pocket when he was arrested. The police searched the photographs on Smallwood's phone (without his consent) and found several incriminating photos (one of them showed the gun he used in the robbery next to a stack of fanned out money four days after the robbery - not too smart on Mr. Smallwood's part). This and other photographs were introduced against Mr. Smallwood at the time of his trial. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 50 years in prison - ouch!

Smallwood appealed his conviction on the grounds that the police had no right to search the data on his cell phone without a search warrant and then use those photographs against him at his trial. The Florida Supreme Court agreed. The Court found that Smallwood had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the digital images in his cell phone and that the police invaded his privacy. The court reasoned that "a modern day cell phone is a computer" and contains vast amounts of personal information and data. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures; the Court ruled that the warrantless search of Smallwood's cell phone was an unreasonable search and seizure and overturned his conviction.

This issue has arisen in many States and has now gone as far as the United States Supreme Court, (Riley v. California), which ruled, on June 25, 2014, that a cell phone cannot be "searched" or accessed by the police without a search warrant. What was not discussed in Mr. Smallwood's case was the issue of consent. What if the police had simply asked Smallwood, at the time of his arrest, if he would give them permission to search the contents of his phone? And what if he said yes?

Lesson Learned:

If the cops take your cell phone from you when you are arrested in Florida, they cannot search the contents without a search warrant. And if the police ask for your consent to search your phone? Or ask for your phone's password to unlock it? Just Say No. No matter what the police say, make them go to court and get a valid search warrant from a Judge. Because if you give them your consent, the cops just might be able to get away with searching the contents of your cell phone, which might give them the evidence they need to convict you of a crime. The Law Office of Richard Landes has defended hundreds of people charged with theft and robbery crimes in the Jacksonville, St. Johns, Clay and Nassau County areas. Theft and robbery crimes lawyer Richard Landes, 904 343-4556, always offers a free, no obligation phone consultation.

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