2

The recent seizure of the cellphones and computers of Rudy Giuliani by the FBI led me to wonder about the immediate, extra-legal consequences for such an individual.

Would this individual be restricted from transferring their phone number to another phone in order to continue using it, or to access their "contacts" list. Same for "social media" and other accounts (e.g. a password manager) – would the individual be locked out of those as well?

As a "non-legal" person, at first glance it seems to me that it would follow that the accounts would be frozen in order to preserve any evidence being sought. However, thinking about it further, if the warrants were only for "electronic devices" exclusive of electronic accounts and services (e.g. cell phone and social media accounts), then the individual should legally still be able to access them.

Stated a simpler way: what is the scope of a warrant for "electronic devices"?

5
  • My mostly uninformed guess is that the individual could freely transfer phone numbers and change passwords as long as they're not destroying evidence (which the authorities might later seek by other means) as part of doing so, since the authorities are searching the contents of the phone itself rather than using it as a portal to trawl through accounts connected to it. – Ryan M May 6 at 1:49
  • This is a good question, though, and definitely in scope for Law.SE. – Ryan M May 6 at 1:49
  • Can this question, please, provide a link explaining what it means to be a "non-legal person." Since you are already putting "non-legal" in quotes, it should not be difficult. Can you simply link to whoever you are quoting? – grovkin May 6 at 17:54
  • @grovkin: look up 'scare quotes' – spring May 6 at 18:29
  • If those are scare quotes, can you, please, elaborate what it is that you mean by the phrase which you put in those scare quotes? And I mean in the question. I get the vague suggestion, but it could be taken both as an honest suggestion or it can be taken as sarcasm. It can also be an honest reference to a known concept. In any case, it would certainly help me understand better what you mean if there was an explanation. – grovkin May 6 at 18:51
5

Assuming that the police have a warrant to seize your cell phone, the scope of what can be seized is specified in the warrant. It is not automatic that seizing a phone entails seizure of some or all online accounts (e.g. automatic backups, collections of passwords in a Google account) and it does not automatically "freeze" or block a person's access to their accounts including phone accounts. It's not that it is impossible to seize an account, it's that it is not automatic: it has to be in the scope of the warrant. Here is a collection of petition templates, asking the court to allow the seizure of various things for various reasons (mostly electronic), including access to bank accounts. If the police suspect that information might be available online after it has been deleted from a phone, they would need to include online accounts in the scope of the petition(s). There is even a template for "give me everything", called "Frankenstein".

5
  • A subtle part of the question which you didn't address is whether a person can "transfer" a number to a different device. I can only assume that the OP meant to ask if a different phone service can be purchased and the old phone number be re-assigned to it. The law requires all mobile service providers to allow for this. – grovkin May 6 at 17:56
  • The law doesn't directly allow or disallow this. If the police can make the case that it would impede their investigation were the person to transfer the number to a different device, the court might order a "freeze" on phone-number transfer, analogous to "freezing" assets. I don't know how one would make that argument, though. – user6726 May 6 at 18:01
  • but how would they technically do it? It's not illegal to just walk into a cell phone boutique and order a new cell phone line and fill in the part of the form that allows for this transfer. What would preclude this transfer from happening? – grovkin May 6 at 18:03
  • @grovkin A UK TV star ("Judge Rinder") had his phone stolen quite recently. He said that a very short time later he had an equivalent phone, same number, all the same data, in his pocket by contacting his phone provider and the phone store. Except for the fact that his insurance paid most of the cost, it would work the same if the police just took your phone away. And if they took a correctly set up iPhone, you can go to any computer and lock & erase it. As you would do if it was stolen. – gnasher729 May 7 at 11:58
  • @gnasher729 that's not the situation I am describing. I am talking about getting a different telephone plan from a different provider. By law, they have to allow transferring of a phone number to a different plan (even from a different provider). And all providers do allow this. The phone number would be all that is preserved. – grovkin May 13 at 7:42
-4

If the police came and took my phone away, and nothing else, technically (not legally) I would be in the same situation as if a robber took my phone away. With my setup, if a robber took my phone, I would go to the nearest computer and lock and erase my phone remotely, go to my phone provider to get a new SIM card, go to the phone store and buy a new phone, plug in the SIM card and restore my online backup to the new phone. Except for having less money in my pocket, there would be no difference.

I'd hope the police would be clever enough to tell people they cannot erase the phone remotely. I'd also hope they'd remove the SIM card which much reduces the possibility that the phone contents can be changed from the outside. And I'd hope they'd ask for the passcode. I'd see a lawyer and ask him what I can do legally.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.