No, no, NO!
In our last Law Talk blog, we talked about saying NO if an officer asks for permission. Well, cell phones and smartphones are no different.
Straight to the point, an officer cannot outright seize your phone without a reason. And just like any other piece of property, you have the means to deny a search of your phone with just the use of a “no.”
After all, these days, phones have evolved to be mini-storage units of information. Your personal information should not be anyone else’s business. You have a right to protect it.
And while police can gain access to your phone with a search warrant, law enforcement NEEDS TWO warrants if they want to seize your phone: a warrant to gain possession of the phone because of the information on it, and a separate warrant to download and access its information.
Both of these warrants are under the context of probable cause, so it's a safe bet that you are being targeted for a criminal investigation if an officer wants access to your smartphone. If it does reach the point of warrants being served, it is out of your hands and you legally must comply. However, don’t make your case potentially worse by volunteering your phone before a warrant is issued.
DO not assist the police if they do gain access your phone. Do not tell them about what something means on your phone, how to navigate your phone, or which apps you use. If asked, do not volunteer information about any content, whether it's a picture, a note... anything. Do not purposefully (or indirectly) lead law enforcement into what they are looking for their case. You will probably end up paying for it later.
While police demand access to or search your phone without a warrant, the rules are not the same at airport. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has much broader authority over electronic devices for security reasons. Not only can they demand on the spot to inspect your phone, they can actually commandeer your phone and download all the information that's on it! While they do not have authority to review the downloaded information without a warrant, they can save it for future investigation. Similar rules apply at our international borders with Mexico and Canada.
If you are traveling through and airport or across the border and have touchy information you don’t want people to find out on your phone, then you should seriously consider not carrying that information/data with you at all. If that is not feasible, then consider storing your information in the cloud, like in a Google or Dropbox account, and then log out of these accounts before you get to the airport. If you log out of online accounts and the information is not saved on the phone, the TSA cannot force you to log into the accounts -- they can only access and download what is currently on your phone.
Your phone has so much information. You don’t want that information used against you at any point. Protect your phone at all costs.