If a search of your cell phone leads to your arrest, you will need legal advice and representation from a Jefferson County criminal defense attorney. Let’s say that you’re stopped in traffic by the police, and an officer asks for your consent to search your cell phone. How should you respond?

Over ninety percent of us have cell phones in the U.S., so it’s a vital question. Millions of us store a great deal of private and personal information on our phones: phone numbers, addresses, personal photographs, and detailed financial information.

Police officers may examine your cell phone only with a warrant, with your consent, or if an “exigent circumstance” applies. In Riley v. California (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a warrantless search and seizure of a cell phone at the time of an arrest is unconstitutional.

Exactly What Did the Supreme Court Say?

The justices concluded that a phone’s data is not covered by the right of the police to search suspects who are being arrested. “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person,” Chief Justice Roberts explained.

The Chief Justice added, “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized (during) an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”

What Does Missouri Law Require?

Missouri state law gives additional legal protection to the privacy of data on cell phones. A 2014 amendment to the Missouri state constitution requires the police to obtain a warrant to access computers and cell phones.

The amendment also prevents police agencies in Missouri from obtaining your cell phone records from your phone company and from seizing your phone to examine its data without a warrant.

When May the Police Seize and Search Your Phone?

However, there are several exceptions to the provisions of the 2014 amendment. The following circumstances allow police officers in Missouri to confiscate and examine your cell phone:

1. A weapons search: A police officer may confiscate a cell phone to determine if it is concealing a weapon such as a razor blade. The search of a cell phone for weapons does not involve accessing the phone’s data.

2. A confiscation: If the police believe that the data in a cell phone includes evidence of a crime, they may seize the phone, remove the battery, and store the phone until they have a warrant. Upon receipt of a warrant, they may search through the cell phone’s data.

3. An exigent circumstance: The warrantless search of a phone is allowed in “exigent” situations. For example, if the police believe that searching phone records will prevent a kidnapping or help them find an armed and dangerous suspect, then the search is legal.

4. If you are a parolee or a probationer: The police may search your phone without a warrant if you are on parole or probation and the terms of your parole or probation allow for warrantless searches.

More About Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances for a cell phone search must be legitimate. Police officers must know hard facts leading to the reasonable inference that there is an emergency, and officers may not create a false exigent situation as a pretext for the search of a cell phone without a warrant.

Exigent circumstances could include preventing evidence of criminal activity from being destroyed, searching for an armed and dangerous suspect, assisting an injury victim, or helping someone who is being threatened with harm.

For example, if the police believe that you and your accomplice robbed a bank, police officers can search your cell phone without a warrant and without your consent in an effort to determine your accomplice’s whereabouts.

If the Police Obtain a Warrant

A request by the police for your permission to search your phone is most likely a “fishing expedition,” because in most cases, if the police are convinced that your cell phone has evidence they need, they will obtain a warrant.

Judges will sign search warrants for cell phones only when they have been persuaded that a crime took place and that a cell phone search will probably uncover evidence about the crime.

In Missouri, if police officers have a search warrant for your cell phone, you have a right to inspect that warrant and ensure that it’s valid. A cell phone search warrant must describe accurately the phone as well as the evidence that is sought.

The warrant should also include your full legal name, the judge’s signature, and the date by which the search must be conducted.

If Police Officers Search Your Cell Phone

If you’re stopped by police officers, and if they ask to search your phone, refuse politely. If you give your consent to the search of your cell phone, anything police officers find there may be used against you. Explain that you are not consenting to any search, but don’t resist the police.

In the State of Missouri, if a search of your cell phone is unlawful, let a Missouri criminal defense attorney deal with it in court – later. Physically resisting the police is dangerous and usually leads to additional criminal charges such as obstruction of justice or resisting arrest.

If you’re charged with any crime based on an unlawful search of your phone, you have a right to contest any evidence uncovered in that search. If such evidence is essential to the case against you, your lawyer may be able to have the charge or charges reduced or even entirely dismissed.

When Should You Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney?

If your phone was searched unlawfully, and if you’re then charged with a crime, a Jefferson County criminal defense lawyer will likely file a motion on your behalf, as a part of the pretrial process, to suppress – that is, to throw out – any evidence discovered in the unlawful search.

If you’re interrogated by police officers, remain pleasant and polite, do not consent to a search, exercise your right to remain silent, and contact a criminal defense attorney at once if you sense the police officers consider you a criminal suspect.

Finally, if you believe that your cell phone has been searched illegally by law enforcement officers in Missouri, whether or not you have been charged with a crime, you should discuss the incident at once with a Jefferson County criminal defense attorney.