Can the Utah Police Search Your Phone Without a Warrant?

The cell phone is one of the most significant tools of the modern age. These devices are more than just phones; they contain sensitive details about numerous aspects of our professional, personal, and private lives.

The police cannot search a phone without a valid search warrant. Even if the police happen upon a cell phone at a crime scene, they need a warrant to go through the phone’s contents. Police may obtain a search warrant if they have enough probable cause to support their assertions that evidence of a crime exists on the cell phone. Once the police take your phone, they will likely begin the process of obtaining a warrant. This might involve gathering the necessary probable cause from their criminal investigation. If your phone is searched unlawfully, we can help you suppress any evidence seized from the phone by the police.

Phones store deeply personal information that should not be accessed by law enforcement without a warrant. Our Utah criminal defense lawyers can help you protect yourself if your phone is seized. Call Overson & Bugden at (801) 758-2287 for a free case review.

Police Searches of Phones Without Warrants in Utah

In 2019, Utah became the first state in the country to enact laws preventing law enforcement officials from searching cell phones without warrants. These laws are known as the Electronic Information or Data Privacy Act. The act specifically bars the police from accessing any electronic device’s stored or transmitted data without a search warrant under Utah Code § 77-23c-102(1)(a).

It is important to note the language used in the statute. Cell phones are not the only items affected here. The law covers any electronic device with your personal information and data. Not only that, but the law covers information stored on and transmitted from your phone (e.g., text messages, emails, geo-tracking data). If the police illegally searched your phone, our Utah criminal defense attorneys can protect your rights by stopping prosecutors from using the evidence against you in court.

When Can the Utah Police Search a Phone Without a Warrant?

The law also carves out several exceptions to the warrant rule for electronic devices and private data. Under these exceptions, the police may search your phone or other electronic devices without a warrant. The police often try to claim these exceptions exist to justify their illegal behavior, and our Provo criminal defense attorneys can help you suppress the evidence taken from your phone.

Location information is the data recorded by your phone regarding its geographic location. By obtaining this data, the police can determine where a cell phone has been. Under Utah Code § 77-23c-102(2), the police can obtain location information from your phone or other devices without a warrant under the following circumstances:

  • The police believe you are in an emergency and need the location information from your phone to find you.
  • The phone was reported stolen.
  • You consented to the search of the phone.
  • The search falls under judicially recognized exceptions to the warrant rule.
  • You voluntarily and publicly disclosed the location information.
  • A remote computing service or electronic communication service provider discloses the information under the belief that there is an emergency or the belief that the information is connected to a crime.

There are also exceptions for stored or transmitted data, which encompasses most of the data that is on or passes through a cell phone. Photos, text messages, call times, and more are all part of stored and transmitted data. The police may access this data without a warrant under the following conditions:

  • The owner of the phone gave informed consent to the police to search the phone.
  • There is a judicially recognized exception to the warrant rule.
  • A remote computer or electronic communication service provider voluntarily discloses this data because they believe it relates to a crime.

How Do the Utah Police Get Warrants to Search Phones?

The police in Utah can obtain search warrants for phones like they would obtain more typical search warrants. The police need sufficient probable cause to get a search warrant for your phone. Even if the police already have the phone, they still need a warrant to search it. Call our Murray criminal defense lawyers immediately if the police failed to obtain a warrant or you believe the warrant was invalid.

Probable cause is hard to describe as there is no clear-cut definition. Essentially, probable cause is anything that tends to show that a crime was committed, and evidence of that crime exists at the location the police want to search (i.e., your phone). Even if the police drum up some probable cause, it is not necessarily sufficient to justify a warrant. For example, the fact that your phone was found at a crime scene does not necessarily mean that evidence exists on your phone.

The police must submit their request for a warrant and the accompanying probable cause to a judge who will have the final say on whether enough probable cause exists to justify the warrant. The judge is an impartial actor here and cannot favor the police simply because of their status as law enforcement officers.

How to Fight an Unlawful Search of Your Phone in Utah

It is often hard to fight a search warrant because they are often executed shortly after they are issued, and defendants typically do not receive notice before their phone is searched. In most cases, people learn about the unlawful search of their phones after the police have finished searching. If this sounds like your case, our Layton criminal defense attorneys can help you prevent the information taken from your phone from ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.

We can file a motion to suppress the information taken from your phone by the police because the search was unlawful. The court will not tolerate a warrantless search where there is no valid exception to the warrant rule. If we can prove the search was unlawful, the judge in your case may prevent the prosecutors from mentioning the information on the phone. We can prove the search was unlawful by arguing that the probable cause was insufficient, incorrect, or even falsified.

Call Our Utah Criminal Defense Lawyers

If the police have seized your phone, they are likely getting ready to search it for information. Our Park City criminal defense lawyers can help prevent prosecutors from using your personal data against you. Call Overson & Bugden at (801) 758-2287 for a free case review.