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Can Police Search Your Computer or Phone Without a Warrant?

Police search

Things can quickly go from bad to worse at a traffic stop. “Didn’t you see that stop sign?” can easily turn into, “What is that baggie of pills doing on the passenger seat of your car?” And, the next thing you know, you are handcuffed and exercising your right to remain silent. In most other situations, the police cannot search your property unless they have a warrant. The thought of the police getting a search warrant to search your computer is terrifying. All of your most valuable information and your most embarrassing secrets are somewhere on the hard drive. 

There are PDF files of your tax forms with your Social Security number and your spouse’s Social Security number, as well as Word documents of the snarky rants you wrote to your ex but fortunately came to your senses before pasting them into an email. Every worry and curiosity you have ever Googled is on your computer’s hard drive somewhere, despite your diligent efforts to delete it. The thought of the police searching your computer without a warrant is even scarier, and there are some situations where they are allowed to do it.

A Texas criminal defense lawyer can help you if your legal troubles began when the police searched your computer or mobile phone.

What Kinds of Evidence Can Police Find on Electronic Devices?

The files on a person’s computer can contain a lot of potentially incriminating evidence. Almost anything you have ever downloaded from an email attachment or website is fairly easy to find on your computer, even if you think you deleted it. Police can obtain a warrant to search a person’s computer if website administrators report that the person’s IP address uploaded illegal content, such as images showing the sexual exploitation of minors. In cases of suspected identity theft, suspicious correspondence or transactions might be traceable to the person’s computer, leading to a search warrant. Messages stored on a computer, smartphone, or tablet can yield evidence of attempted fraud, money laundering, or online solicitation of a minor.

Searches of Electronic Devices, With and Without a Warrant

In most cases, the police cannot search your computer without a warrant, just as they would need a warrant to search your desk drawers or anything else inside your house. The only time they can search your property, including your computer or mobile phone, without a warrant is when the screen with the illegal content is in plain view. If the police see someone in a Starbucks writing an email to an old lady, trying to persuade her to wire him $20,000 so he can bail himself out of jail, there is probable cause for the search, much as there is probable cause for a search of a car if an officer sees illegal drugs on the seat at a traffic stop. Likewise, if you verbally consent to a search, then the police have the right to search your property.

Contact the Law Office of Patrick J. McLain, PLLC About Criminal Defense Cases

A Dallas criminal defense lawyer can help you exercise your right to protection against illegal searches of your property. Contact the Law Office of Patrick J. McLain, PLLC, to discuss your case.

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