Can I Take a Look at Your Phone?

Inquisitive police officers regularly ask suspects questions like “Can I take a look at your phone?” or “Can I see your phone?” These on-the-street requests may give rise to legal questions in court. For example, if the suspect hands over the phone in response, does that provide consent for the officer to search the phone? And if so, what is the scope of the search that the officer may conduct? This post explores those issues.

Is silently handing over the phone consent? If a suspect says “sure, you can search” or signs a consent to search form, it is obvious that he or she has consented to the officer searching the phone. But if the suspect silently hands the phone to the officer, is that consent, mere acquiescence, or something else? The Fifth Circuit held that it was consent in United States v. Escamilla, 852 F.3d 474 (5th Cir. 2017). That case involved an officer asking a suspect “Do you mind if I look through your phone?” and the suspect silently giving the device to the officer. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the suspect consented to search based on his actions, which were “more than mere silence or failure to object.” See also Lemons v. State, 298 S.W.3d 658 (Tex. Ct. App. 2009) (an officer asked to see a suspect’s phone and the suspect’s “response of simply handing his cellular telephone” to the officer gave the suspect’s “unbridled consent” to the officer’s search of the device). The phone in Escamilla was apparently unlocked, and I doubt that handing a locked phone to an officer, without providing the passcode, would be analyzed the same way.

What is the scope of the consent? The scope of a consent search is completely within the control of the person granting consent, who may limit his or her consent in any way that he or she pleases and may revoke consent at any time. However, a court attempting to determine the scope of consent does not ask what the person granting consent subjectively intended to allow. Rather, it applies an objective test, seeking to discern what a “typical reasonable person [would] have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect.” Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248 (1991). So, when a suspect assents to a request to “see” or “look at” his or her phone, what exactly does that permit?

Courts have answered that question in ways that are sensitive to the specific facts of the case. If the conversation between the officer and the suspect concerns a specific type of data on the phone, the consent may extend only to that data. For example, in State v. Mefford, 517 P.3d 210 (Mont. 2022), the Supreme Court of Montana considered a case involving a man who was on probation and subject to GPS monitoring based on a previous conviction. Officers noticed that GPS data showed that the man was outside his home after his 10:00 p.m. curfew. They went to investigate. The defendant admitted he had been outside his residence, claiming that his cell service was poor in his house so he sat in his car to communicate with his daughter via Facebook Messenger. An officer asked to see the defendant’s phone “so he could verify his story,” and the defendant produced the phone. The officer opened Facebook Messenger and confirmed that the defendant had been messaging his daughter. Then, without further discussion, the officer opened the defendant’s photo library and saw wat appeared to be images of child pornography. After the defendant was charged with child pornography offenses, he moved to suppress, arguing that the search exceeded the scope of his consent. The state supreme court ultimately agreed, finding that the defendant’s consent was given for the “specific purpose” of verifying the Facebook Messenger activity “and it was not objectively reasonable for [the officer] to believe that [the defendant’s] consent extended to other areas of the phone.”

Some additional important and recurrent questions in this area are addressed below.

  • Does consent to search allow a forensic examination? For example, may an officer plug a phone into a Cellebrite device and conduct a complete extraction? At least under some circumstances, courts have answered that question in the affirmative. One such case is United States v. Thurman, 889 F.3d 356 (7th Cir. 2018), where officers investigating a suspected drug dealer took him to a police station for questioning. He had his phone with him and orally consented to a search. An initial manual search seemingly produced nothing of interest, and the officers released the suspect based on an expectation that he would cooperate with the investigation. However, they kept his phone, and when the suspect declined further cooperation they did a forensic search of the phone, finding incriminating “reconstructed text messages and contacts that had been deleted from his cell phone.” The suspect was charged with drug crimes and moved to suppress, arguing in part that his consent didn’t support a forensic search. The district court and eventually the court of appeals disagreed, with the latter stating that “[b]ecause it was clear that the agents were investigating [the defendant’s] recent drug sales, a reasonable person in his position would expect them to search the phone for relevant deleted messages. A reasonable person may be expected to know that recently deleted information can be reconstructed on a cell phone.” That decision strikes me as pushing the envelope. More typical may be United States v. Butler, 2023 WL 3719025 (11th May 30, 2023) (unpublished), where the court found that the defendant’s agreement that officers could “take a look at” his phone provided consent to support a forensic examination when considered with additional facts – such as the defendant’s agreement to allow technical personnel to examine his phone, the defendant’s willingness to provide his passcode to police, and the defendant’s lack of action to limit or revoke his consent. On the other side of the ledger, in United States v. Lewis, 81 F.4th 640 (6th Cir. 2023), the Sixth Circuit ruled that while officers obtained a suspect’s consent to “look at” his phone, they “exceeded the scope of [that] consent when they seized his electronic devices and forensically examined them.”
  • Can the officer answer the phone if it rings? Not according to the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Lopez-Cruz, 730 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 2013). There, Border Patrol officers stopped the defendant’s vehicle, suspecting he might be involved in alien smuggling. They observed two phones in the vehicle and an officer asked the defendant, “Can I look in the phones? Can I search the phones?” The defendant consented, and when one of the phones rang, an officer answered, pretending to be the defendant. Incriminating conversation ensued. The defendant ultimately moved to suppress, arguing that the officer’s actions exceeded the scope of the defendant’s consent. The trial court and the Ninth Circuit agreed: “An individual who gives consent to the search of his phone does not, without more, give consent to his impersonation by a government agent, nor does he give the agent permission to carry on conversations in which the agent participates in his name in the conduct of criminal activity.”
  • How long does the consent last? In another context, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has stated that the “temporal scope of a consent to search is a question of fact to be determined in light of all the circumstances.” State v. Williams, 67 N.C. App. 519 (1984). And the fact that an “initial” search is followed by a “more thorough” search does not necessarily mean that the second search is outside the scope of consent, especially if the suspect does not revoke or limit his or her consent in between the inspections. State v. Baublitz, 172 N.C. App. 801 (2005) (so holding, in the context of a vehicle search). In other words, the answer varies depending on the circumstances. Turning to some phone search cases, in Thurman, supra, the court found that the defendant’s consent to search his phone lasted overnight where he failed to “ask for it back at the end of the interview.” In Escamilla, by contrast, the court ruled that the consent to search that was provided when the defendant handed his phone to an officer ended when the officer returned the phone, and therefore could not support a second search of the same phone that was later conducted at a police station: “Just as Escamilla’s directly handing Agent Garcia the phone initiated the consensual search, a reasonable person would understand that Agent Garcia’s directly handing the phone back to Escamilla ended it.”

Comment and conclusion. Officers and suspects normally aren’t lawyers. Their conversations are in regular English rather than the technical language that lawyers favor. This inevitably results in some ambiguity in communication. Even so, as I noted in this prior post, officers can reduce the risk of having evidence suppressed by asking for consent as clearly as possible. Given the disparate cases discussed above, they may wish to ask explicitly for consent to conduct a forensic examination, to answer a call, or to take other steps beyond a manual inspection of a device. If asking for the whole enchilada up front seems daunting, an officer could potentially proceed in stages, asking “Can I look at your phone?” as a starting place, and later seeking consent for more detailed inspections.