Can the police search my phone if they think I am texting and driving?
First of all, is texting while driving illegal?
Yes. According to Minnesota Statute §169.475 Subd. 2 when a vehicle is in motion or part of traffic, the person operating the vehicle upon a street or highway is prohibited from using a wireless communications device to compose, send, or read an electronic message.
In addition to texting, drivers are prohibited from making or participating in a phone call, or accessing content stored on a device such as video content, audio content, images, games or software applications.
Violations of this law are a petty misdemeanor, payable offenses, which means that they are only punishable by a fine and are not considered a “crime.” The current fine for a first-time offense is $120. A second offense results in a $300 fine. Failure to pay the fine can result in the suspension of one’s drivers’ license.
How can the police prove that I was texting?
Proving one of these charges is not necessarily easy. For the state to prove that you were illegally using your phone, they will typically require eyewitness testimony from the officer making the stop, an admission from the driver, evidence from the phone itself, or public information from social media sites.
What If I’m pulled over and the police ask to search my phone?
While an officer may ask you to see your cell phone during a traffic stop, you are not legally required to allow the police to search your phone. The 4th Amendment to the Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. There are two ways that a police officer can lawfully search your cell phone without violating your 4th Amendment rights. The police can either get permission from the owner of the phone or obtain a search warrant.
During a traffic stop, a police officer might ask you to unlock your phone and allow them to look through it to determine whether or not you were texting. A police officer cannot legally force you to allow them to search through your phone, yet you might not know that. If you comply with an officer’s request to search your phone, you have given permission to the officer to search your phone, and any evidence they find can be used to prove that you have violated the law. The best course of action would be to respectfully deny the request, unless the officer obtains a search warrant.
Besides getting permission from the owner of the phone, a police officer can obtain a search warrant to force the owner to turn over the device to be searched.
Will police get a warrant on the side of the road?
Police are able to acquire a search warrant very quickly. While it’s possible that an officer could acquire a search warrant on the side of the road to search your phone, as a practical matter it’s fairly unlikely that the police would go to such a great length for a petty misdemeanor offense.
Can an officer try and force me to show them my phone?
An officer might try and talk you into showing them your messages or other data on your device, without necessarily ordering you to do so. It is important to remember that if you are pulled over, you are under no obligation to show an officer the contents of your device. The 4th Amendment protects you from any unreasonable search. Therefore, if the police ask to search your phone without a search warrant, you can respectfully decline.
Will I have to unlock my phone if the police get a search warrant?
Yes. The Minnesota State Supreme Court ruled in State v. Diamond (2018) that ordering an offender to provide his fingerprint to unlock his cellphone did not violate his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This means that if the police obtain a search warrant to search your phone, you will be legally obligated to unlock your device.
Can the police obtain your phone records?
Yes. If the police can’t find incriminating evidence on your device, they may try to obtain a search warrant to acquire your phone records. In the case of State v. Gail (2006) the Minnesota State Supreme Court ruled that the unreasonable search and seizure provisions of the 4th Amendment and the Minnesota Constitution were not triggered when police obtained phone records utilizing a search warrant.
So, what can I do with my phone while driving?
There are several specific exceptions to the statute, that allow drivers to use their mobile device. Essentially, drivers may use their device so long as it is in hands-free mode, or if there is some sort of emergency requiring the driver to use the device. Each approved use is listed below.
- In a hands-free mode, make a phone call or initiate, send or listen to an electronic message.
- View or operate GPS and navigation systems that does not require the driver to type while the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic, so long as the driver does not hold the device in one or both hands.
- Listen to audio-based content so long as it does not require the driver to scroll or type with one hand while the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic.
- Obtain emergency assistance to (i) report a traffic incident, medical emergency or traffic hazard, or (ii) prevent a crime about to be committed.
- In the reasonable belief that a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger.
- In an authorized emergency vehicle while in the performance of official duties.