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Legal for Police to Read My Text Messages?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

The question of whether police can your read text messages hasn't gotten any clearer since the Supreme Court declined to decide the issue back in 2010.

The most recent ruling on the issue comes out of Rhode Island where a judge found that police could not read a person's private text messages without a warrant. Michael Patino was arrested after police arrived at his girlfriend's home responding to an emergency call and looked at his cell phone.

The Rhode Island state court ruled the police shouldn't have read the texts but that only makes the issue more complicated among states.

Several states have already dealt with the issue of police seizing cell phones.

In California, Florida, and Georgia police are allowed to seize a cell phone and examine its contents after the owner is arrested. Ohio has said such searches are never allowed.

This new case muddies the water still further since Patino's cell phone was not seized incident to an arrest, according to Ars Technica.

Search and seizure falls under the Fourth Amendment and generally people have the right to be secure from searches without a warrant. That right is a little different following an arrest.

Once police have arrested a person, they can do a 'search incident to arrest' which allows them to search anything on the person's body on in containers on or near their person. This includes backpacks, purses, and in some states it also includes cell phones.

If your state includes cell phones as something that can be searched incident to arrest, whatever is found on there could be used against you. But if your state doesn't explicitly allow police to read your texts without a warrant, get an attorney to fight any charges or evidence that stem from that initial search.

That's what Michael Patino did in this case. Police were called to his girlfriend's house when her six-year-old son went into cardiac arrest, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. While in the house, a police officer picked up Patino's cell phone and read one of his texts.

Based on that text message, police arrested him for murder and obtained other search warrants for additional evidence.

But a judge ruled that any evidence gained from that text message was inadmissible, according to Ars Technica. Since the text message was unlawfully seized without a warrant, no evidence gained from it could be used.

The question is still unsettled and Rhode Island is expected to appeal the ruling. If you're worried about privacy, it's still best to lock your phone when it's not in use. That way police can never search it without a warrant or court order.

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