Police Can’t Make Suspects Unlock Phones with Biometric Features

In January of 2019, a U.S. Judge for the Northern District of California ruled that law enforcement cannot require a suspect to unlock their phone using their finger, face, or iris. The decision came after law enforcement submitted a request to get a warrant to search the home of a person accused of committing extortion through Facebook. The suspect allegedly asked a person to send them money; otherwise, they would post “embarrassing” videos of them on the social media site. The police sought to raid the property of persons of interest and access mobile devices.

Violating One Right Could Render Other Acts Unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge Kandis Westmore ruled that law enforcement's request to search the suspects’ home and force all individuals present to unlock their phones could violate their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. Under the Fourth Amendment, a person is protected from unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by police. Although, the cops had probable cause to go through the suspects’ property, their request to compel all individuals found at the suspect’s home to provide access to their electronic devices would be unconstitutional and would render the search unreasonable.

Biometric Data Should Be Treated Like a Passcode

Judge Westmore further declared that making an individual unlock their phone with their biometric features infringed on their Fifth Amendment rights. American citizens are protected from providing testimony that could incriminate themselves in a criminal case. Previously, courts have ruled that making a person provide police with their phone’s passcode was considered a type of testimony and violated their constitutional rights. Judge Westmore said a finger, face, or iris should not be treated any differently from a password since they serve the same function.

Additionally, Judge Westmore pointed out that using biometric information to access a phone is distinct from using it as evidence. If a person is required to provide their fingerprint or a blood sample to test against other items found at the scene of a crime, they are not giving testimony about that offense. However, when a suspect uses a fingerprint to unlock their phone, they are showing that the phone and information contained within it belong to them, which could be self-incriminating.

Contact The Law Office of Brian C. Andritch for a Free Consultation

Our attorney is dedicated to aggressively defending your rights. We will thoroughly review your circumstances to determine whether any conduct during the process was unconstitutional and if evidence gathered during a search is admissible at your trial. We have over 18 years of experience and have handled various white collar crime cases, such as extortion, and we know how to build effective defenses to fight charges.

Schedule your free case review by calling us at (559) 484-2112 or contacting us online.