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Search My Computer? Not Without a Warrant Say California Citizens

Asus G73J Gaming LaptopIt is not unusual for law abiding citizens to willingly give the police anything they ask for. From information to belongings, people believe that they are obligated to give the police what they have. If you live in California, think for a moment before you automatically comply; especially when it comes to your computer.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, California citizens enjoy a right to privacy when it comes to their computers. This opinion arises from the case of Riley v. California. In their decision, Justices write that electronic devices “contain a record of nearly every aspect of people’s lives.” Because of this opinion, California authorities, in most cases, must obtain a search warrant before they search a person’s computer.

Like any rule, there are exceptions.

  • You Consent to the Search

A police officer pulls you over or approaches you. The officer asks you for permission to look at your computer and you comply. That officer now has the right to not only search, but seize, your electronic device. Why? Because you gave consent.

  • Someone Else Gives Consent

Let’s say that the computer you are using is not your own. It may be a parent’s computer, one belonging to a roommate, or even one that is owned by your company. If the true owner of the computer gives the police the authority to search or seize it, no search warrant is necessary.

  • An Emergency Situation Exists

If the police can explain why searching your computer will prevent an immediate emergency, they do not need a warrant. For example, if there is a reasonable belief that information on your computer will prevent an imminent, deadly crime, expect your computer to be seized without your permission.

  • You Are Traveling Internationally

You can travel from state to state without worry of your computer being searched but, if you are traveling across an international border, all bets are off. No matter which country you are traveling to or from, the police are within their rights to search your laptop or tablet.

  • Destruction of Evidence

This exception does not typically apply to law abiding citizens, but it is good to know nonetheless. If the police have reasonable belief that there is evidence on your computer that is in danger of being destroyed if the machine is not seized, they are not required to wait for a search warrant.

The exceptions above are the only ones that allow police to search or seize your computer without a warrant. In all other instances, you are not required to grant permission to search or seize your computer to any law enforcement officer in California.

If you believe that you have been the victim of an illegal search or seizure, a qualified attorney can assist you. The U.S. Supreme Court has granted you rights to privacy when it comes to your electronic devices. Let an experienced attorney help you fight for them!

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Stephen Levine, is a Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Defense — an honor achieved by only the top criminal law attorneys in California. Mr. Levine has over 40 years of experience in criminal defense and family law serving Southern California, and is a highly regarded Super Lawyer as well as AV Rated attorney.