Can the police force you to unlock your cellular phone?

On Behalf of | Jul 21, 2022 | Criminal Defense

That cellular device you keep in your hand or pocket is really a powerful little computer that can do incredible things and hold a ton of information. If you’re like most people, you keep a lot of personal information on your device – and you may not fancy the idea of the police poking through it all (even if you haven’t done anything wrong).

Can an officer force you to unlock your smartphone against your will? Not exactly – but there are a few things you need to know.

The police need a warrant, first

The Supreme Court ruled that the police need a warrant to search your phone (unless there are exigent circumstances or you give your consent). However, that’s where it gets tricky.

What if the police get a warrant? Well, there’s no federal rule that makes it entirely clear whether or not you can be compelled to give up your passcode. Many have argued that forcing someone to turn over their phone’s passcode would violate their Fourth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

If you do refuse to unlock your phone, nobody can pry the information out of you, but:

  • You could be subjected to additional charges and detainment over your refusal
  • If your passcode uses biometric data (like your fingerprint or facial recognition software), the police may simply force the issue
  • The police may be able to get access to your phone through data extraction technology
  • Many (but not all) cell phone carriers and manufacturers will assist the authorities with their requests to access your device once they have a warrant

Handle a demand to unlock your phone with care

Knowing your rights is half the battle, but if an officer says, “Mind if I look through this?” remember these tips:

  1. Clearly and vocally decline permission.
  2. Ask if the officer has a warrant.
  3. Decline to provide passcodes or pattern lock information.

Finally, when you’re put in a situation you don’t know how to handle, you can always ask for experienced legal assistance. Asserting your rights can be scary when you’re facing down the authorities, but it’s the best step to take.


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