When Can Cell Phone Search Results Be Used as Evidence?

In investigations for civil and criminal cases, attorneys will go to great lengths to obtain the evidence needed to win a case. Social media has become a source for information and potential evidence for or against people. Although many people call it an invasion of privacy, attorneys can use cell phone search results as evidence.

The Fourth Amendment and Probable Cause

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects people’s right to privacy, banning unreasonable searches and seizures. In most situations, a law enforcement officer, attorney, or anyone else cannot look through or take something without probable cause. But the Fourth Amendment also protects cell phones. A law enforcement officer or injury lawyer must prove it is very likely that evidence is on the phone to legally search it.

For example, if you filed a claim for a motor vehicle accident and your attorney believes that evidence of neglect exists on the defendant’s cell phone, your personal injury attorney must provide proof that supports his or her belief to legally access the phone. If your attorney tries to use the defendant’s cell phone search results without having probable cause and a warrant, the court will most likely dismiss the evidence.

Who Can Search Cell Phones?

Different people can search your cell phone under different conditions. Federal agencies can search any information on your phone, including search results if they provide a subpoena. All cell phone companies must obey federal subpoenas to search phone records.

Police officers also have the right to search your cell phone in certain circumstances. As mentioned above, however, they must have probable cause for a court to consider anything discovered on the phone admissible. Along with probable cause, law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant for the information. The only exception is if the cell phone search is relevant to an arrest. If an officer believes that searching a cell phone could prevent impending damage, he or she can immediately search the phone without a warrant.

Danger of Search Results in Civil and Criminal Cases

Both in civil and criminal cases, search results on a cell phone can play a major role in how the court rules. If you recently searched for something incriminating on your cell phone that relates to the case, the opposing attorney may be able to use the search as evidence that could severely damage your claims.

However, some stipulations accompany using cell phone search results as evidence in court. Most courts will dismiss searches that occurred a long time ago. For example, if you searched the incriminating thing eight months ago, the court will most likely consider it significantly less persuasive as evidence that if you searched it two weeks ago.

Other Cell Phone Privacy Information

Due to the expansive prevalence of cell phones in today’s society, there have been many court cases involving cell phone privacy issues, and as a result, many people have started looking into the truth about how much of their cell phone activity is shared.

Along with law enforcement officers, advertisers and cell phone service providers can access the information on your phone. Advertisers use search history to determine marketing strategies. Cell phone service providers can access both incoming and outgoing calls and text messages, the frequency with which you use email or the internet, your general location, and more.

Numerous federal laws are meant to regulate and establish cell phone privacy and outside access, including:

  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The ECPA makes it illegal to share digital content under certain circumstances.
  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Lawmakers enacted this law in 1986 to keep people from getting into computers without authorization or consent. Though the law does not explicitly include cell phones, some courts may now consider cell phones to be computers, and therefore, protected under the act.

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