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The complexities of warrantless cellphone searches

Our cellphones hold some of our most valuable information, from pictures and videos to bank account passwords and even health records. Considering how much personal data is accessible with the swipe of a finger, it can be important to understand more about cellphone search procedures.

Thanks to a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, police generally cannot search a person's phone without a warrant or without that person's consent. This means that if you are arrested, your phone can be taken, but unless you say it's okay, police will have to first secure a warrant before they look through it. However, there are critical exceptions.

Exceptions to this rule include exigent circumstances. These circumstances include those that are urgent, when police have reason to believe someone or something is in imminent danger. In these situations, waiting to get a search warrant would make swift action impossible, so a warrantless search may be permitted.

There are numerous situations where the grounds for accessing someone's phone are not so black-and-white, though. For instance, recently a man was arrested and charged with multiple sex crimes after police found child pornography on his phone.

However, someone else found the phone in a driveway and handed it over to an officer to look through without a warrant and without the consent of the owner. It was more than two weeks later when a warrant was actually issued.

In cases like these, the search procedures will likely come under scrutiny, as will the fact that at least two people had access to the owner's phone between the time he lost it and when police secured a warrant.

Cases similar to this one can also highlight the need for experienced criminal defense counsel when a case involves matters like the discovery of child pornography on a phone, computer or tablet. Understanding state and federal laws in addition to being able to challenge a search and/or statements made by witnesses can prove to be the difference between having critical evidence dismissed and a conviction.

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