In the age of smartphones, our cell phones have become mini-computers full of all our personal information. A typical smartphone might have records of all your communications, a history of where you have gone each day, and all of your stored credit card information. Modern technology has allowed hackers to infiltrate our phones and gain access to our private information. As police forces have become more knowledgeable about technology, many have begun to employ similar techniques to gain remote access to the cell phones of people they suspect have committed a crime. Below, our experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers at Overson Law, PLLC guide you through your rights when it comes to protecting the privacy of information on your cell phone from warrantless police access.
Utah’s Cell Phone Data Privacy Laws
In 2019, the Utah legislature passed a bill that requires officers to get a warrant before remotely accessing information stored on your cell phone, your computer, any apps you may have downloaded, or in the “cloud.” Privacy advocates have hailed the law, the first of its kind in America, as transformational. Under this law, police cannot receive location information, stored data, or transmitted data from a third-party such as your cell phone service provider without a warrant. The bill also forbids the warrantless use of a “stingray device” to spoof a cell phone tower and trick any phones in the area to send their data to the stingray device instead.
Prior to the enactment of this law, the police had broad latitude to access what is known as third-party data under a 1970s U.S. Supreme Court case. At the time of that ruling, the types of data implicated were limited to such things as bank records and other information that you had turned over to a third party. However, in today’s age, we hand out massive amounts of private information to providers such as internet or cell phone providers every time we use one of their devices. As such, this rule no longer makes much sense. Utah’s law closed this third-party loophole and required a warrant for searches of information stored on our phone or any of its apps, even if it has technically been turned over to a third party.
There are exceptions under this law for situations where immediate access to information is needed due to some exigent circumstance. This exception applies if there is imminent risk to an individual of death, serious physical injury, sexual abuse, live-streamed sexual exploitation, kidnapping, or human trafficking. Another exception occurs if a remote computing service inadvertently discovers information that appears to pertain to the commission of a felony, or of a misdemeanor involving physical violence, sexual abuse, or dishonesty.
How Utah Police Remotely Access Your Phone
If the police are able to obtain a warrant, or if they believe exigent circumstances exist for them to remotely access your phone without a warrant, the extent to which they are able to access your information will depend on the scope of the warrant granted or the particular exigent circumstances. There is virtually no limit to the type of information the police can access if they are permitted to. As noted above, one of the most common practices is creating a stingray device that will download your cell phone’s movement information as if it is the local cell tower. They can show a warrant to third-party providers and simply require them to turn over your data.
Police can also remotely install a tracking device on your phone that can keep track of where you are at all times. Such a device will also likely give the police access to all the information stored on your cell phone, even if it is encrypted. Depending on how advanced their technology is, they may even be able to hack into your phone’s systems to record your conversations or take pictures without your knowledge.
Fighting an Illegal Search of Your Cell Phone in Utah
Despite the fact that Utah has enacted some of the most stringent privacy laws in the country when it comes to protecting your cell phone data from remote access by the police, officers often ignore these laws and use the technology to access your data anyway, with the hope that you do not know your rights. An experienced Salt Lake City illegal search and seizure defense attorney like those at Overson Law, PLLC can fight back against such an abuse of power and prevent any evidence obtained from an illegal search from being used against you in court.
Your lawyer can fight an illegal search of your cell phone by filing what is known as a motion to suppress. Under a rule known as the “fruit of a poisonous tree doctrine,” any evidence obtained from a search that the court finds was conducted illegally is invalidated and cannot be used against you. If your lawyer files a motion to suppress, the court will hold a hearing where both sides can make arguments as to the validity of the search.
There are many successful arguments that a skilled Sandy, UT criminal defense lawyer can make in a motion to suppress. If a warrant was issued, they can attack the warrant as being based on false information or attack the fact that the information given did not rise to the level of probable cause for a warrant to be granted. They can also claim that the information obtained was outside the scope of the warrant granted. If the police conduct a warrantless search but try to claim the existence of exigent circumstances, your lawyer can try to prove that such circumstances did not exist or did not justify the police failing to go through the proper channels and get a warrant.
If the Police Are Illegally Accessing Your Cell Phone, Call Our Utah Criminal Defense Firm Today
The police have many powerful technological tools at their disposal in today’s age and have become more and more adept at using them to gain secret access to your digital information, such as that stored on your cell phone. No longer is having physical possession of the phone necessary for them to find out your recent locations, look at your messages, and much more. However, Utah law protects its citizens from the police using their vast spying power without being granted a proper warrant by a judge. At Overson Law, PLLC, our skilled Ogden criminal defense attorneys can protect your digital privacy and fight any warrantless access of your cell phone by the authorities. Call us today at for a free consultation (801) 758-2287.