Police Can’t Force Some Phone Unlocks, Judge Says

Police Can’t Force Some Phone Unlocks, Judge Says

A CALIFORNIA JUDGE HAS ruled that authorities can’t force people to unlock their smartphones using their face, eyes or fingerprints.

Forbes reports that U.S. judges have previously ruled that police were allowed to compel suspects to use their biometrics to unlock devices, but a recent ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California challenges those decisions. Suspects are largely protected — even if police have a warrant — under the Fifth Amendment’s guard against self-incrimination, the judge said.

In the ruling issued last week, Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore denied police a search warrant in a Facebook extortion crime case. Westmore ruled that the federal agents had the right to search a suspect’s property but not to open up any phones on that property, as requested.

Judges have ruled in past cases that biometric features are not “testimonial,” reasoning that a person does not have to verbalize any code for access, according to Forbes. Without that distinction, biometrics have gone previously unprotected against self-incrimination.

“The challenge facing the courts is technology is outpacing the law,” Westmore wrote in her ruling.

Westmore said authorities’ request to search all phones was “overbroad.” But she also reasoned that “if a person cannot be compelled to provide a passcode because it is testimonial communication, a person cannot be compelled to provide one’s finger, thumb, iris, face, or other biometric feature to unlock that same device.”

Requiring people to place their fingers on a phone is also different than requiring a suspect to submit to fingerprinting, she said.

Ultimately, Westmore wrote the government can use other methods to go about legally accessing a seized smartphone’s contents, such as asking Facebook to provide Messenger exchanges.

“While the Court sympathizes with the Government’s interest in accessing the contents of any electronic devices it might lawfully seize, there are other ways that the Government might access the content that do not trample on the Fifth Amendment,” she wrote.