Police, public deal with when authorities can search phone

Earlier this month, Franklin police officers were called to check on a man who had been sitting in a fast-food restaurant for hours.

Police started talking to the man, and when he explained why he was there, officers wanted to look at his cellphone to double-check his story.

The man offered up his phone, and told officers they could look through his text messages. But minutes later, he decided against it, and officers weren’t allowed to search the phone.

Police officers deal with these situations on a daily basis, whether they are trying to search a cellphone, vehicle or home for evidence in a case. Before police officers can search a phone, just like someone’s home or car, they are required to read people their Pirtle warnings, which state that you have to give consent before a search. If you don’t give permission, officers have to get a search warrant.

After a recent murder in Greenwood, the investigation showed the murder suspect took the victim’s cellphone. When officers found the suspect’s car, they saw a cellphone inside. So when they requested a search warrant, investigators specifically included the cellphone so they could search it for additional evidence.

When the man at the Franklin restaurant told police they could not search his phone, they would have needed to get a search warrant to look through his text messages to confirm his story, under the law.

Some people are more than willing to let officers search their car or phone, while others immediately say no.

“It does save us some steps if they cooperate,” said Maj. Bob Sexton, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office investigations commander.

Officers typically do not ask to see someone’s cellphone in everyday cases, Sexton said. On a typical day, a search of a cellphone may only be necessary in one out of every 10 cases, Sexton said.

But if someone is arrested on a charge of possessing child pornography, child molestation or child victim cases, cellphones can provide necessary evidence, police said.

If a suspect uses a smartphone, investigators can look for sent emails, websites a person has gone to and photos they have saved, Greenwood assistant chief Matt Fillenwarth said.

In about 90 percent of child-victim cases, cellphones reveal the most incriminating evidence, Sexton said. Officers typically find deleted photos or videos of children, or inappropriate conversations about children. Police also can find evidence on the cellphones of victims, such as conversations between them and the suspect on messaging apps such as Snapchat and KiK Messenger that can include inappropriate photos, Sexton said.

Often, suspects think the officers won’t find what they’re looking for, Fillenwarth said.

But now that cellphones are with us constantly and can be synced to home computers, they provide much more information than people realize, officials said.

“You do so much more on your phone than just talk,” Fillenwarth said.

Even if someone gets rid of inappropriate messages or pictures, deleted text conversations, photos and videos can be brought up in an instant, Sexton and Fillenwarth said.

Both the sheriff’s office and Greenwood police have forensic specialists that can recover deleted items, as well as see how many times pictures or videos have been downloaded or viewed. Forensic experts can even tell when a photo, text message or video was deleted from a person’s phone, Fillenwarth said.

If a person does not give permission to search their phone, investigators can still get access to incoming and outgoing calls and who has received or sent text messages through the cellphone provider, Fillenwarth said.

Know Your Rights

Police officers have to inform people of their rights before searching their cellphone, car or home. Officers can either get consent from the person, or get a search warrant.

What it is: Pirtle Warnings

What it says: “You have the right to require that a search warrant be obtained before any search of your residence, vehicle or other premises. You have the right to refuse to consent to any such search. You have the right to consult with an attorney prior to giving consent to any such search. If you cannot afford an attorney, you have the right to have an attorney provided to you at no cost.”

What it means: Officers have to ask for permission before searching through your belongings, such as a cellphone or a car. If you refuse to give permission, an officer can ask for a search warrant to look through your cellphone or car.