Washington, DC asked in Family Law and Civil Litigation for District of Columbia

Q: I was kicked out and my phone was taken. It’s under a family plan but all of my information is on it. Can I get it Back?

Im 19 and was forced out my parents house. They took the phone they gifted but because of their own personal reasons, it stood on their family plan. I have my work, phone numbers, things I need. Do I have the right to get the information at least when I go back for my belongings?

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1 Lawyer Answer
Kenesha A Raeford
Kenesha A Raeford
  • Columbia, MD
  • Licensed in District of Columbia

A: If you are based in the District of Columbia, the laws of the District will likely control and govern how this question is answered. Essentially, this matter is a mixture of a few different legal principles: Contract Law, D.C. Common Law, and Privacy Rights.

First, family plan agreements are essentially contracts between the subscriber and the carrier. These agreements stipulate the terms of service, including who is responsible for charges, data usage limitations, and potentially, control over individual lines. Given such, who ultimately controls the information or access to the information, may be uncertain given the family plan. Typically, the administrator of the family plan (your parents) would have some basis to assert rights to the data stored on your cell phone. However, this will largely depend on the terms and conditions contained within the family plan agreement.

Secondly, D.C. follows common law principles, which recognize individual ownership of tangible personal property: in this instance, the phone itself. Because the device was gifted to you, you own the device regardless of who pays for the service plan. This ownership grants you the right to use, possess, and control the phone, within legal and contractual limitations. Keep in mind that contractual limitations could include limitations found in the terms and conditions of the carrier agreement (family plan contract).

Finally, because this was your personal cell phone, wherein you kept important information for work and other essential things, there is a possibility that you could establish a "reasonable expectation of privacy" to the contents and data stored in your phone. In Carpenter v. U.S., the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a very important decision regarding privacy rights within the framework of digital access for cellular devices. While this case was about the U.S. government's limitations in accessing individual location data via cellphone data, the case arguably sends a larger message about an individual's "reasonable expectation of privacy" to other information and data stored in their cell phones. Please note however, that the Carpenter case is about the 4th amendment, and how it applied to this data privacy issue in the context of a criminal matter. These privacy rights in Carpenter are also limited to the protections afforded to individuals and limitations placed on government actors and not other individuals. Simply put, this Carpenter case is not authoritative in requiring non-government individuals, your parents, to respect these same privacy rights. However, the case may be instructive, and helpful to compose an argument or justification for your privacy rights, as D.C. has other privacy laws that may take into consideration, ones "reasonable expectation of privacy."

The larger piece of advice here is that in any matter, but especially a matter involving family members, it is best to try to avoid litigation where possible. Depending on the severity of the situation, an attorney may be able to assist you with this case by drafting a demand letter for you or calling your parents on your behalf. The costs for this service, however, may outweigh the benefit, again depending on the severity of the situation and your work obligations. It may be best, however, to simply call the phone carrier yourself, and explain the situation. You can report the phone as stolen and ask the phone carrier to help you with restoring your information onto another device. That way you avoid stirring up additional mayhem with your family, and you are able to access the important information stored on your phone.

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