Can Pennsylvania Police Search Your Cellphone if You’ve Been Arrested?

A recent court decision on cellphone privacy has brought this question to the forefront again. The California Supreme Court ruled this month that California police can search the cellphone of a person who has been arrested. That means call logs such as missed calls, calls received, and dialed calls could all be viewed by police without the need to obtain a warrant for the search from a judge. Text and picture messages can also be viewed. Any evidence police find can be used against a defendant at trial.

Privacy and security experts have already expressed doubts about the decision. Since the California Supreme Court ruled that a cellphone may be searched in any situation (not just in a situation where the records might be lost), it is the rule and not the exception, according to Bob Sullivan, consumer advocacy reporter with the Red Tape Chronicles. He interviewed a cybersecurity expert and former Justice Department official who told him the ruling "isn't just wrong, it's dangerous."

The ruling raises the question: is your cellphone safe from search if you are stopped or arrested in Pennsylvania? Pennsylvania courts have not dealt with a case that is on point with this issue. Pennsylvania courts have considered whether cellphones and pagers may be seized with or without warrants if justified as a search incident to arrest. But a review of Pennsylvania decisions on criminal law does not appear to reveal whether police may actually search and examine a cellphone after it is seized or whether the police may do so after arresting an individual.

Why should this matter to you? As one legal expert put it, many people commit minor crimes without even realizing it - unpaid parking tickets and riding without a seatbelt are just two examples. While it's unlikely that you will be arrested for such crimes, it can happen. And then you and your cellphone records could become the next appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if you want your privacy to remain intact.