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Can your roommate let the police access your computer?

| Jan 8, 2021 | Criminal law

You’re a college student who lives in a shared dorm. The police believe you have been involved in illegal activity on your computer, and they want to search it. They come to your dorm and find that only your roommate is there.

The roommate lets them inside, and they ask to search the computer. Can your roommate allow it?

Complex situations can make entitlements unclear

This is a complex situation, and the only real answer is that your roommate may be allowed to do so. As legal experts point out, control over an object defines who can let police search that object. When control is shared or unclear, who can permit a search can be murky.

For instance, maybe you and your roommate share a computer.  Or, perhaps your roomie borrowed yours for a while (with or without permission). Either way, your roommate is on your laptop when the police arrive. If they ask to see it, your roommate can hand it over if they want. They have control over the computer and can, therefore, grant permission for a search. As long as the police have a reasonable belief that they have permission, the search could be valid.

The police cannot, however, pick-and-choose permissions. If you and your roommate share a laptop, for example, and your roommate tells the police to go ahead and search it but you tell them to stop, they need to stop. They’ll have to get a warrant.

In actuality, you may never run into this problem. It depends how you use your devices. Most roommates have separate devices and their own passwords. If the computer is locked and your roommate consents to the search, but cannot provide the password to open the computer, the police are still going to need to talk to you — the only person who can actually give them access. 

Knowing your rights is half the battle

Technology searches are often confrontational, as laws tend to lag behind developments in culture and science. If you’re facing charges based on what may be a faulty search warrant or a mistaken search of your electronics, it’s smart to get an experienced defense attorney on your side. Any criminal charge can have disastrous consequences for your future, so fight back with every legal method at your disposal.