Can Police Search Your Cell Phone?

by Stevie Hall*

As of February 26, 2014, the highest criminal court in Texas ruled that the United States Constitution requires police to have a warrant before searching search a cell phone of an arrested person. Searching a cell phone without a warrant is an “unreasonable search and seizure,” and violates the “expectation of privacy”. According to the Court’s opinion, a person has a subjective expectation of privacy of many of the things they own: a house, a car, and yes, a cell phone. The expectation of privacy of an object, if recognized as reasonable and legitimate by society, can “stand” to the challenge of being searched. However, there are instances where an accused person may lose the expectation, such as abandoning their cell phone, lending to others, or giving their consent to search.

In the case of Huntsville High School Student Anthony Granville of which this ruling arose from, his expectation of privacy was not lost. Granville was arrested one morning for causing a disturbance on a school bus, which resulted in a class C misdemeanor (Tex. Educ. Code Ann. § 37.126 (West 2013)). During the booking procedure, Granville’s phone was taken from him and stored in the jail property room. Later that day, a Huntsville School Resources Officer gained knowledge of a possible inappropriate photo of another student on Granville’s phone. The officer, who did not arrest Granville, drove to the jail, turned on the defendant’s cell phone, sifted through his photos, and found the photo, all without a warrant. Granville was then charged with a state-jail felony of Improper Photography, a state jail felony.            The Granville opinion clarifies the once blurred lines of cell phone searches without a warrant in Texas. An officer should obtain a warrant before searching through a cell phone. Because a cell phone can receive, store, and transmit information (usually private information), it is unlike a container in a pocket, and more like a person’s house or car. The Court’s opinion states, “There is no doubt that the Fourth Amendment protects the subjective and reasonable privacy interest of citizens in their homes and in their personal ‘papers and effects.’”

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