Guide to Laws About Cell Phones in California

1. Unlocking your phone

If I request my cell phone carrier to “unlock” my phone, do they need to do it?

After you have fully paid for your cell phone (which may include finishing your service textingcontract), you have the right to “unlock” your phone in order to switch carriers.1Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act of 2014

One thing to note is that because phones are usually manufactured for use with only one type of network, GSM or CDMA, unlocking your phone only allows you to switch to a different carrier that uses the same network. For example, you could switch between Verizon and Sprint (which both use CDMA) or between T-Mobile and AT&T (which both use GSM).

2. Privacy

Can police search my cell phone?

Law enforcement may not search the contents of your cellphone without getting a warrant, even if you are arrested.2Riley v CA (2014); U.S. Const., 4th amendment

NOTE: In general, when police want to search a person or their stuff, they must convince a judge that they will find evidence of a crime in the search, and if the judge agrees, he/she will issue a warrant. But when police arrest a suspect, they have the right to search that person, even without a warrant to do so. However, this does NOT extend to the content of cellphones.

Can police track my location through my cell phone?

Law enforcement may not obtain your location data through cell tower data from your phone carrier unless they get a warrant.3Carpenter v U.S. (2018)

See more about searches and police conduct generally.

Can my employer force me to allow them to see what’s on my phone?

No. Your employer may NOT ask for your phone’s password (unless the employer provided it), or ask you to scroll through your phone’s contents while he/she watches.4Cal. Labor Code Sec 980

3. Jamming your signal

Can someone “jam” my cell phone?

Companies or individuals may not block or interfere with your cell phone signal, personal Wi-Fi hotspot, Wi-Fi network, or GPS.5Communications Act, Section 333; as interpreted by Federal Communications Commission

4. “Cramming”

Can cell phone carriers add charges to my bill without my consent?

Cell phone companies may not add charges to your bill from outside companies without your clear consent, must clearly identify these charges as from outside companies, and must give you the option to block the charges. This practice is called “cramming.”

See more on consumer rights.

5. Cell phones and driving

What exactly are the laws regarding making calls/texting while driving?6CA Vehicle Code Sec. 23123, 23123.5, 23124

  • If you are over 18 years old
    • While driving in California, you may not touch a cell phone or other communications device for any reason, except to make a quick swipe or tap, but only when mounted on the dashboard or windshield. The only exception is in an emergency.
  • If you are under 18, you may NOT use either handheld OR hands free device while driving. The only exception is in an emergency.
  • Penalty: Although the base penalty for a first violation of these laws is $20, when administrative fees are added in, it comes to a minimum of $159.7Contra Costa Times on administrative fees

For distracted driving or driving while using a cell phone, is it OK to do these things while stopped at a red light?

No. The law prohibits “operating” a vehicle while doing these things, which includes being stopped at a red light.8People v Nelson, CA Court of Appeal (2011)

6. Robo calls

Are robo calls to cell phones illegal?

Yes. See more at our Guide to Consumer Rights


EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS

Author

  • Tristan Blaine

    Tristan Blaine is the founder of Law Soup Media, and has been a licensed attorney since 2013.

    About Tristan

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