25 Sep 23

Can my phone and computer be searched without a warrant in New York?

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Last Updated on: 2nd October 2023, 05:33 pm

Can My Phone and Computer Be Searched Without a Warrant in New York?

This is a complicated question that doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer. The legality of searching phones and computers without a warrant depends on the specific circumstances of the search. There are some cases where it is legal for police to search your devices without a warrant, but in many cases a warrant is required. Let’s break it down.

Searching Cell Phones

In general, the police need a warrant to search the contents of a cell phone, based on some key Supreme Court decisions. Back in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that police typically need a warrant to search the data on your cell phone, even if you’ve been arrested[5]. This overturned the previous assumption that police could search your phone incident to arrest, like searching your pockets. The Court recognized that modern cell phones contain vast amounts of sensitive personal information that is different than just the physical items you might have on you. So police now need a warrant in most cases to search your phone.

There are some exceptions where police can search a phone without a warrant:

  • With the owner’s consent – If you voluntarily allow the police to search your phone, they can do it without a warrant[5].
  • Exigent circumstances – If the police have a reasonable belief that evidence on the phone may be immediately destroyed, they can do a limited search without a warrant[6].
  • Search incident to arrest – Police can search the physical aspects of a phone (like removing the case) and access any information visible on the locked screen without a warrant[6].

But in general, if your phone is locked and protected by a passcode, the police will need a warrant to actually access the contents. The warrant has to specify the exact phone to be searched and what they are looking for on it[1].

Searching Computers

The rules for searching computers are similar to phones. In general, police need a warrant to search your computer if it is password-protected or you haven’t consented. The Riley decision emphasized the extremely personal and private nature of digital data, and those privacy interests don’t just apply to phones. A computer likely contains even more personal information than a phone.

However, computers can be searched without a warrant in some circumstances:

  • Consent – If you or someone else with authority over the computer consents to the search, no warrant is needed[5].
  • Exigent circumstances – If evidence on the computer may be immediately destroyed, police can do a limited warrantless search[6].
  • Plain view – If police are legally present and evidence is in plain view on the screen, they can use it without a warrant.

Also, police have more leeway to search computers at international borders without a warrant[5]. But in general for computers located inside the U.S., the police will need a specific warrant to search the contents if it’s locked or password-protected.

Can Police Make You Unlock Your Devices?

This is another tricky question – whether police can legally compel you to unlock your phone or computer so they can access it. The Fifth Amendment protects you from being forced to testify against yourself, so you can’t just be ordered to hand over your passcode against your will. However, police may be able to legally compel you to use your fingerprint or face to unlock your phone in some cases. Here are a few key points on this issue:

  • Police can’t make you reveal your passcode – This would violate your Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination[6].
  • Police may be able to make you unlock with biometrics – Courts have ruled that using your fingerprint or face doesn’t reveal knowledge, so it may not violate the Fifth Amendment[6].
  • There are risks to unlocking – Police could place your finger on the sensor without your cooperation if the phone is already unlocked. So it’s best not to unlock your phone if asked by police.

The legal issues around compelled unlocking are still evolving and some questions remain unsettled. But in general, it’s best not to unlock your phone or provide your passcode if asked by police. Politely decline and state you do not consent to any searches. Doing this could help protect your rights.

What If Police Try to Search Without a Warrant?

If police try to get you to hand over your phone or access your computer without a warrant, politely assert your rights. Here are some tips:

  • Clearly state that you do not consent to any searches of your devices.
  • Do not physically resist, but clearly decline to provide access or passcodes.
  • Ask if you are free to leave – if so, calmly leave while reiterating you do not consent.
  • Get the officers’ names and badge numbers.
  • Write down everything you remember ASAP.
  • Contact a lawyer – illegal searches may violate your rights.

While the law does allow some warrantless searches in specific cases, the police still need a valid legal justification. Don’t be afraid to assert your rights if officers seem to be overstepping their bounds. But always remain calm and collected.


Search laws for phones and computers are complex, but in general police need a warrant to search locked, password-protected devices in New York. There are limited exceptions, but you have the right to decline consent to any warrantless searches. If police do search without a proper warrant, that may violate your rights and any evidence found may be suppressed. The best approach is to politely refuse consent and consult an attorney if you feel your rights have been violated.


  1. Searching Cell Phones: When Can the Police Search Your Devices? – New York City Federal Criminal Lawyer – Koch Law
  2. Can the Police Search My Cell Phone? – Cody Warner, P.C.
  3. Can Police Search My Cell Phone? | Perlmutter & McGuinness, P.C.
  4. Can the Police Force You to Unlock Your Phone in NYC? | Greco Neyland, PC
  5. Know Your Rights | Electronic Frontier Foundation
  6. When is law enforcement allowed to search your phone? – Vox