If the NZ Police arrest you they also have the power to search you. In light of recent decisions in Canada and the US amongst other countries, we had two questions:
- Can the Police also search your mobile phone or other smart device if you’re arrested?
- Can the Police force you to unlock it if it is secured by a password or fingerprint?
We asked the Police and while the answers aren’t as in-depth as we’d like, we thought we’d share what we got combined with our own analysis.
Firstly, if the Police can legally search you (they have a warrant, you’re in the vicinity of a legal search being executed, you’re suspected of being involved in certain classes of crime, etc), section 125(1)(l) of the Search & Surveillance Act explicitly allows them to search your phone or other data device.
Furthermore, section 130 of that Act can be used to compel assistance (i.e. you must unlock it) if they are doing a legal search. Note that the “no self incrimination” clause is generally understood to refer to the information used to unlock, not the information that is revealed by being unlocked.
The Police also have access to a range of tools used to access the information on such devices. In 2013 the Police Electronic Crime Group searched 1309 mobile phones and other devices. This number doesn’t include any searches at the District level (stats are not recorded) or by officers on the street persuading people to let them examine their phone.
Secondly, section 88 allows the Police to do a warrantless search of someone who has been arrested if they have reasonable grounds to believe that they have a thing that may be used to harm someone, be used to escape, or may contain “evidential material relating to the offence in respect of which the arrest is made”.
It would seem that this clause would allow the Police a large amount of leeway to come up with some vaguely plausible explanation as to why they need to search your digital device if you’re arrested. e.g. they could require the information on it to track your movements or who you communicated with before you were arrested.
From our brief analysis, supported by the information from the Police, it seems that the NZ Police can upon arrest:
- Search your mobile phone or other electronic device if they can formulate a plausible reason to do so.
- Oblige you to unlock it.
Does anyone have a counter view?
How long can the Police hold the data for?
Who can they share the data with?
What limits as to reasonableness will the judiciary impose when it comes up in court?