Cellphone technology has changed the way people communicate. No longer are telephone calls restricted to a fixed location, such as your home or a public phone booth. Today, calls can be made on the go from any location that is close enough to a cell tower to allow the call to go through. Gone are the days of trying to find a telephone number using a bulky, printed phone directory or by calling directory assistance or the operator to do a phone search by name.
Modern cellphones capture the telephone numbers of the people that call you and can be used to conduct a phone search by name using the internet. The amount of information contained in cellphones has made them important sources of information for police investigating crimes. This could put you in a difficult situation if a police officer asks to look at your cellphone. Here are a few tips about your rights when faced with such a request.
Your expectation of privacy
It is quite common to be around people talking on their phones in such a loud voice that you cannot avoid hearing what is being said. The person standing near you might even have the phone on speaker so you can hear both sides of the conversation. The law does not protect the privacy of a person who talks on a cellphone in a public place so that everyone standing nearby can hear the conversation. The caller is described as not having an expectation of privacy with respect to the conversation.
You have the right to go about your business each day with a reasonable expectation that private conversations and personal information about you will remain private. For example, if you put a gun in a clear plastic bag, your expectation a police officer will not see it is unreasonable. If, however, the gun is in a brown paper bag, your expectation of privacy is preserved, and a police officer would violate your rights by attempting to look in it.
Cellphones and the expectation of privacy
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that your expectation of privacy extends to the information and data contained in your cellphone. There are, however, exceptions. For instance, if you leave you phone on a table in a public place, a police officer who sees the name and number of the person calling you has not violated your rights. Your expectation of privacy does not extend to something in open view in a public place.
It is a different situation if the police officer picked up your phone and began scrolling through your call log. Such conduct would violate your privacy rights.
Consent and your rights
Keep in mind that consenting to the search of your phone by the police waives you privacy rights. Whether police want to do a phone search by name or are looking for other information, you have the right to declined giving your consent to a search of your phone. When in doubt about your rights, you should consult with an attorney.