Vol. 38 No. 1 (2019): The University of Queensland Law Journal

Examining the Legitimacy of Police Powers to Search Portable Electronic Devices in Queensland

Matthew Raj
Faculty of Law, Bond University
Russ Marshall
Bond University

Published 2019-11-11


Mobile phones are more than just telephonic devices; they have the capability to store, retrieve and access potentially endless meta-data, including the personal information of an individual and his or her associates. In a landmark decision of 2014, the United States Supreme Court unanimously deemed unconstitutional the warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a mobile phone during an arrest. Five years on, in Queensland, the warrantless search by the police of a detained person’s mobile phone can be considered standard investigative procedure. This article examines the legitimacy of existing Queensland police powers to conduct a physical search of a detained person’s mobile phone. The core argument advanced is that, on a spectrum of property capable of being searched, a mobile phone should be considered more akin to a person’s private home than their handbag or wallet. The article highlights the hazards of police searches of mobile phones that are conducted in the absence of an adequate framework of legal control and judicial oversight, and it recommends greater legal safeguards to govern existing police powers to search mobile phones.