The police have asked me to turn over my cellphone and laptop so that they can search it for illegal material and child pornography. I don’t have anything to hide, but I don’t want to turn anything over unless I really need to. What do the police need to get a search warrant for my electronics?
Under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as under the Florida Constitution, the police cannot search through information on your computer, laptop, cellphone, tablet, or other electronic device without either your consent or a search warrant. If you refuse to give consent, then a police officer or other law enforcement agent would need to provide a sworn affidavit to a magistrate or judge stating the grounds for probable cause. The affidavit would need to provide specific information showing that there is a high probability that law enforcement will find illegal material on your devices if they were allowed to search them.
Many people wonder how law enforcement could possibly know whether their devices contain illegal material such as child pornography. Most tips that law enforcement receives regarding child pornography come from internet service providers, such as Google or Safari. Internet service providers are private companies. Given that 4th amendment protections only apply to invasions of privacy committed by government actors and not private individuals or companies, the 4th amendment does not protect you from private companies turning over information they have to law enforcement. For example, if an internet service provider becomes aware of an image of child pornography, it can report that image, including providing the web server and address, to law enforcement. Law enforcement can then use this information to establish the probable cause they need to get a warrant for uploads or downloads of this illegal material.