What are the limits of smartphone searches by law enforcement?

On Behalf of | Dec 1, 2022 | Criminal law |

A search of one’s belongings – by anyone – can feel incredibly invasive. You wouldn’t want someone rifling through your purse or backpack, nor would you be comfortable with someone looking around your home for whatever they might happen to find.

But for many of us, the most invasive search of all would be an unrestricted search of our smartphone. Just think of how much private and sensitive information you have contained in that device. Device security is so important that smartphone manufacturers continue to invest heavily in encryption software, biometric locks and other features meant to keep unwanted people out.

Unfortunately, smartphone security and privacy are still a gray area when it comes to court-authorized searches by law enforcement. And court rulings around the country are setting contradictory precedents for what is and is not allowed.

Some smartphone search warrants can be incredibly broad

A recent article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) discusses two court rulings in which law enforcement applied for – and were granted – smartphone search warrants that many have argued were overly broad and/or not supported by the probable cause arguments made to obtain them.

In both cases, police ended up finding evidence of crimes unrelated to the incidents that prompted the original searches. Both defendants filed motions to suppress the evidence. And in both cases, the defendants were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to suppress. In one case, the appellate court refused to suppress the evidence despite admitting that the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure because it was impermissibly broad.

The legal landscape of smartphone searches is ever-changing

While the details of the two cases mentioned above are too numerous to adequately discuss in this post, the main takeaway is that each landmark court ruling creates precedent, which is what guides future court decisions. Therefore, it is important to watch how courts interpret the limits of our civil rights when it comes to law enforcement searches of smartphones.