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Can federal agents seize my computer or phone with a search warrant?

By Spodek Law Group | November 29, 2023
(Last Updated On: February 20, 2024)

Last Updated on: 20th February 2024, 10:54 pm

Can Feds Take Your Phone or Computer If They Have a Search Warrant?

So you’re just minding your own business when there’s a knock at your door. You open it to find a couple of serious-looking people flashing badges. They say they have a search warrant and start rifling through your stuff, grabbing your phone and laptop. Can they really do that? What are your rights in that situation? Let’s break it down.

What’s a Search Warrant?

A search warrant is a legal document signed by a judge that allows law enforcement to enter and search a specific location to look for evidence of a crime. The Fourth Amendment requires police to get a warrant from a judge before they can search your property, unless there are special circumstances like if someone’s life is in danger.

To get a search warrant, police have to show probable cause – meaning they have good reason to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in the place they want to search. The warrant has to specify the location to be searched and what items police are looking for.

Can Feds Take My Devices if They Have a Warrant?

Yes, if federal agents have a valid search warrant, they can seize your electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, tablets, etc. The warrant has to specifically authorize the seizure of electronics, but if it does, agents can legally take your devices if they think evidence related to the investigation may be found on them.

Once they have your device, agents can then make a complete copy of all the data on it – your emails, texts, photos, browsing history, social media, everything. They don’t need a separate warrant to search the contents of the device once it’s been lawfully seized with a warrant.

What Can They Do With My Data?

Federal agents can search through your electronic data to look for evidence related to the crime they’re investigating. So if they have a warrant to search for evidence of drug trafficking, they can look through your texts and emails for anything related to buying or selling drugs. They can also use any other evidence they find, even if it’s not related to the original crime. So if they’re looking for drug evidence and stumble across child pornography, they can start investigating that too. This is called the “plain view” doctrine.

In general, the data can only be used for law enforcement purposes related to the investigation that led to the search warrant. Agents are not supposed to browse through your stuff just for fun or to look for other violations. There are rules about sealing and storing the data too. But digital privacy advocates argue the rules are not strong enough to protect people from overreach.

Can They Share My Data with Other Agencies?

This is a gray area legally. The search warrant gives the agents who applied for it access to your devices and data. But can they then share what they find with other agencies not involved in the original investigation?

Some courts have said no – agents can’t just rummage through your data and randomly share what they find with other agencies. There needs to be a valid law enforcement purpose for sharing the info. Other courts have been more lenient though, so the rules aren’t totally clear.

At minimum, agents are allowed to share data if it’s directly relevant to an active investigation by another agency. So if the FBI is looking at your devices for drug evidence and finds something related to an ongoing terrorism case the Department of Homeland Security is working, they can share that info with DHS. But they probably shouldn’t share your dating app messages with the IRS just for fun.

Do I Have Any Rights in This Situation?

You have constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure, but courts give law enforcement a lot of leeway when they have a valid warrant. Still, here are some tips if federal agents ever show up with a warrant:

  • Ask to see the warrant and confirm it’s signed by a judge – agents have to show it to you if you ask.
  • Note the scope of the search – what locations and devices they’re allowed to search, and what they’re looking for.
  • Don’t interfere with the search, but you can observe and take notes.
  • Clearly state that you do not consent to any search beyond what the warrant authorizes.
  • If they want to take your devices, ask them to make a copy and leave the originals if possible.
  • Get the agent’s identifying information and contact info for any follow up.
  • Contact a lawyer immediately about your rights and options.

There are also some defenses lawyers can raise later if agents exceed the scope of the warrant or mishandle evidence. But in the moment, there’s usually not much you can do to stop a search if agents arrive with a facially valid warrant.

The Bottom Line

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches. But if federal agents show up at your door with a search warrant signed by a judge that authorizes them to seize and search your devices, there’s probably not much you can do to stop them in that moment. If it happens, stay calm, don’t interfere, take notes, and contact a lawyer to understand your rights and legal options. Digital privacy is an ongoing issue as technology gives the government more access to our personal data.

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I was searching for a law firm with some power to help me deal with a warrant in New York . After 6 days I decided to go with Spodek Law Group. It helped that This law firm is well respected by not only the top law firms in New York , but the DA , Judge as well. I...

~Fonder Brandon

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It was my good fortune to retain Spodek Law Group for representation for my legal needs. From the beginning, communication was prompt and thorough. Todd, Kenneth and Alex were the first people I worked with and they all made me feel comfortable and confident that the team was going to work hard for me. Everything was explained and any concerns...

~A G

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After meeting with several law firms, I chose the Spodek Law Group not only for their professionalism and experience, but for the personal attention given to me right from the initial consultation. It is important to recognize how crucial having the right legal team is when faced with potentially life altering events that impact families and the lives of loved...

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