It was late. You were in a rush to get home and were pulled over for speeding. You know the drill: be polite, explain your actions before reaching into a glove compartment, remain calm. After you provide your license and registration, though, the officer demands your cell phone. You don’t want trouble, but you don’t want some stranger peering through your photos and messages. What are your options?
According to both the U.S. Supreme Court and Tennessee legislature, the search and seizure of cell phones at traffic stops is illegal. But before you think your phone can never be confiscated, learn the special circumstances in which your phone may be taken from you.
1. The officer must have a warrant.
With the passage of Public Chapter 785, your phone is protected in the same manner as is your house. Just as they are usually required to show proper documentation before entering your home, law enforcement agents must have a court-approved warrant to gain access to your phone. If you have been following our blog, you know that cell phone records are used as evidence in court cases and do not always provide the most valid information. It is important that you remain vigilant about maintaining possession of your phone in order to prevent misinformation from being used as evidence against you in the future.
2. There must be immediate, so-called “exigent,” circumstances.
So what are the factors that create an exigent situation? If law enforcement believes there is an emergency regarding a life threat or property destruction that needs a quick response, they may be able to seize your phone. Imminent evidence destruction is also cited as exigent. However, if the police determine a scenario to be pressing and take your phone, it is possible that they will still be required to obtain a warrant after seizing it.
Feeling pressured, you handed your phone to the officer. Is there anything that you can do to protect yourself after your information has been accessed? Public Chapter 785 has been designed to address this scenario as well. If your phone has been illegally confiscated, none of the information it contains can be used in court.
Some may see a cell phone as a small gaming device or high-resolution camera, but it’s more than that. Your cell phone stores personal information that you need to safeguard. The U.S. Supreme Court and Tennessee Legislature agree, and that’s why the phone in your pocket is protected with the same rights as your house.