The police are at your door. A neighbor complained about a disturbance and they came to investigate. You figure you have nothing to hide in your home so you consent to the search. But you do have something to hide—only it’s in your computer.

Can police search your computer? What are you rights?

Generally, police need a search warrant before they can look at the contents of your computer unless some other exception to the warrant requirement exists. (See U.S. vs Flores-Lopez.) Unlike other physical objects, computers hold vast quantities of private and sensitive information. Even when police can legally take the computer, they must still get a warrant to investigate it.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that computers cannot be searched as part of an arrest. Generally, that type of search is allowed to preserve evidence and to protect officer safety in case the defendant has a weapon. The court held that neither rationale applies to digital data.

Officers can still search your computer if there is a compelling emergency—such as locating the whereabouts of a kidnapped child.

But what if you told police it was OK to search home? Does that include your hard drive? Police may generally look only where the object of a search may reasonably be found. Guns or drugs are not likely to be found on your computer screen. If you told police they could search your computer, however, your consent may be general enough to permit the search. This is a developing area of law.

If you believe the charges against you are the result of an illegal search, contact an experienced criminal law attorney immediately. An attorney can determine if police followed proper procedures. If not, an attorney may be able to petition the court to suppress any illegally obtained evidence.

If you have questions about this or another related Illinois criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email

(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)

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