Is it legal for police to read your texts without a warrant?

by Mike on September 9, 2017

Is it legal for police to read your texts without a warrant?

Texts are one of the most common forms of communication in the digital age. But, how private are the texts that you send? There is protection provided, when it comes to law enforcement access to electronic devices. This is covered by the 4th amendment of the US Constitution which mentions unwarranted and unlawful searches and seizures.

This does not mean that the police are never permitted to read your texts without a warrant. There are occasions when it’s legal for them to do so.

The reading of older texts

Assuming you have not been arrested for a crime, law enforcement officials need to have secured a warrant to read texts that are less than 180 days old. However, once your texts are older than this, the police are able to access them, according to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which was originally set up in 1986. Law enforcement officials simply need to request access for content held by your service provider. There has been a lot of legal argument about this, and many experts believe that the ECPA needs to be reformed, given the proliferation of smartphone usage. However, the ability for police to access older texts still exists at present.

The reading of texts following arrest

There is another occasion when law enforcement officials can access your texts without having a warrant in place. This happens if you are arrested. For ninety minutes after the arrest takes place, the police are legally permitted to take any personal electronic devices you are carrying, and search them. This means that they can read any texts which you have sent.

The ability to do this was defined in the judgement of the US Supreme Court, in the case of People vs Diaz.  Following the arrest of Gregory Diaz, police searched his cell phone and accessed texts that he had sent. These texts were used as evidence to help secure a felony conviction. Mr Diaz appealed the conviction but the Supreme Court found that the police had legitimately acquired the text message evidence as a person loses the expectation of privacy for personal items that are on their person when they are taken into custody.

This means that if you are ever arrested, police can access any information that is stored on your smartphone, or any other electronic device that you are carrying with you.

When you are sending text messages, you probably do not imagine that they are going to be read by someone else, other than the recipient. But, the increased use of digital technology has meant that privacy lines have become a little more blurred. You can see that it’s possible for law enforcement officials to view texts that you have sent, in certain circumstances. If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of police checking your text messages, it’s a good idea to speak to a criminal lawyer. They can help you with your legal issue, and provide you with the advice and support that you need.


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