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Can the police make me unlock my phone?
We all store most of our lives on our phones, with our daily communications, social media presence and internet search history all being carried around in our pockets.
For that very reason, it has become increasingly common for the police to try to seize and search phones when they suspect that the owner has committed a criminal offence. But can the police make someone unlock their phone if they do not give them permission to do so?
In this post, we outline what powers the police have with regards to searching your phone, both before and after being arrested, and what options you have if you find yourself being asked to unlock your phone against your wishes.
Can the police stop and search your phone without permission?
While the police do have the power to stop and question any member of the public at any time, you do not have to answer any questions if you do not feel comfortable doing so. It should also be noted that the police can only search your person if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you are carrying anything illegal - such as a concealed weapon or drugs.
This extends to the fact, under most circumstances, the police cannot stop you and make you unlock your phone so they can search it. This means, if you do not want to unlock your phone for the police, you won’t usually be obliged to do so.
Are there any exceptions the police can use to search your phone?
The only reasons why the police will be able to search your phone without your consent is if they are able to justify using legal powers such as terrorism or child sex offence laws.
Another potential exception is if the police suspect that the phone you are carrying has been stolen and the reason for stopping you is to confirm whether this is the case.
If your phone is seized after the police have obtained a search warrant for your address, then the police may be able to seize and search it if they think it may contain information they are looking for.
Can the police make you unlock your phone if you have been arrested?
If you have been arrested by the police, any personal belongings you had on you at the time will be seized, including your mobile phone. This is because the police may want to access it in order to gain evidence of criminal activity.
Of course, if you have a smartphone, you will likely have a certain degree of security, such as a PIN code or password, which the police will not be able to bypass. Any social media accounts you are not logged into on your phone will also usually be password protected.
Because of this, the police will likely ask you to unlock your phone and provide your login details for your social media accounts. Even if you are in custody and you feel as though you are under pressure to comply with the police, you do not have to give this information, even when directly asked.
Once the police have arrested and cautioned you, you do not have to answer any of their questions, and you are entitled to independent legal advice.
Can you be arrested if you refuse to unlock your phone for the police?
Typically, you will not be arrested for refusing to unlock your phone for the police. However, in certain situations, the police may use legal search powers.
For example, the police may choose to use Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (often referred to as RIPA). This makes it an offence to refuse to provide access to your phone and you could be arrested and prosecuted.
A RIPA notice could be served if the police believe that:
- You have the password or PIN Code
- The notice is essential, such as if it protects national security
- The notice is proportionate
- The required data cannot be obtained using other methods
Failing to comply with a RIPA notice can lead to a maximum sentence of 2 years in prison.
Can the police still access phone data even if you don’t unlock it?
It may be possible for the police to access your phone, even if you do not provide a password or unlock it for them. Unless the data on your phone is encrypted, it can still be accessed lawfully via modern technology.
For example, if you have data stored on a cloud server, this can be remotely accessed without the need for you to physically unlock your phone.
How long can the police keep your phone for evidence?
The police have legal powers to seize property they feel is relevant to an investigation under Section 22 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE).
Your phone will normally be held at the police station until the police confirm that your investigation has been concluded and it is no longer needed for evidence. So, even if you have been released on bail for a suspected offence, there is a chance that the police will hold on to your phone until your case has been dropped or you are charged with an offence.
What should you do if the police want to access your phone after you have been arrested?
If you are arrested, the police will likely take you to a police station for further questioning. This is also where they will store your personal belongings, including your phone.
If the police want to access your phone, this means that they are looking to gather evidence which could be used to charge you with a criminal offence.
For this reason, we recommend that you get in touch with our criminal defence solicitors at the earliest opportunity so we can provide police station representation and help you to better understand your rights in relation to your phone.
You should never answer any questions from the police without a solicitor present.
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