Can Police Force You to Unlock Your Phone?

Posted On: October 20th, 2019 by Bradley J. Groene
Magnifying glass on phone

The police cannot force you to unlock your phone; however, in some scenarios, this won’t matter. Many law enforcement agencies now have decryption devices that can unlock smartphones. So if the police gain possession of your phone through a lawful search authorized by warrant or emergency circumstances, they may be able to unlock your phone without you. A smartphone may contain a wide range of evidence that could be used in a criminal prosecution, and your criminal defense lawyer will carefully review the actions the police took to gain control over your device’s contents.

At Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP, we are able to achieve positive case resolutions in criminal cases by asserting the constitutional rights of our clients. A prosecutor cannot use unlawfully seized evidence against you in a criminal proceeding, whether it’s your smartphone or other kinds of evidence. If the police have seized your phone or charged you with a crime, you should contact an Ohio criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Contact us today at (513) 338-1890 for a free consultation.

Your Rights Protect Your Phone and Its Contents

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Although your fourth amendment rights may be diminished if you are close to an international border, in most cases the police may lawfully obtain your phone in the following ways:

  • Warrant: A warrant gives the police the strongest authority to seize your phone and search its contents. To obtain a warrant, the police must convince a judge that your phone contains evidence of wrongdoing.
  • Consent: If you consent to let the police search your phone, they can do just that. However, you may be able to revoke your consent. It’s important to note that people such as your friends or housemates can legally give the police access to your phone in your absence.
  • Emergency circumstances: If the police have probable cause to believe your phone contains evidence of a crime or that you will attempt to destroy that evidence, they may seize your phone without a warrant or your consent.
  • Probable cause: The police may lawfully search your car if they have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime. If they find your phone during the search, and they suspect that it contains evidence of a crime, they may keep it.
  • Arrest: Police can conduct searches of the suspects they arrest. The primary function of these searches is to ensure officer safety, but they often use these searches to seize whatever contraband they might find on your person or in your clothing.

In all of these scenarios, the police can lawfully gain possession of your phone. However, they still cannot force you to unlock it. Even if a warrant authorizes a search of the contents of your phone, the police cannot use force to make you comply with the warrant. The worst they can do is hold you in contempt for refusing to comply with the court order.

This is because the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution secures your right against self-incrimination. Just like the police cannot beat a confession out of you, they cannot force you to give up your phone’s password. Recent court cases have even extended this to your biometric data. This means that the police cannot force you to place your fingerprint or retina on your phone if it can be unlocked with biometric data.

New Devices Allow the Police to Unlock Your Phone

Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies no longer have the problem of convincing suspects to unlock lawfully seized phones. With advanced decryption devices, it’s relatively easy to unlock most smartphones, tablets, and laptops. So long as the police have a warrant or exigent circumstances justifying the search of your phone, they can legally unlock your phone without you. But they might also try to unlock your phone in other scenarios–and sometimes they may get away with it.

In these cases, the best you can do is to clearly state that you do not consent to the search, and call a lawyer as soon as possible. What your lawyer can do is challenge the legal basis the police used to gain possession of your phone. If the police lack a lawful basis, then the judge will not allow the contents of your phone to be used as evidence.

If the police have seized your phone, you need to assert your constitutional rights as soon as possible to give yourself the best chances of getting a good case outcome. A Cincinnati criminal defense attorney can help you effectively and promptly assert these rights. Contact Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP today at (513) 338-1890 for a free consultation about the defense of your case.