When it comes to a person's home or car, law enforcement can't search legally except under very limited circumstances. And while the issue hasn't been addressed by Pennsylvania courts, a California judge recently ruled that those same protections prevent federal law enforcement from forcing someone to unlock their mobile phone using biometrics like a fingerprint.
The case, decided in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, has the potential to be a landmark decision if appeals courts agree. This comes on the heels of a series of cases where courts ruled law enforcement could not force a defendant to divulge a password to their mobile device. The court in this case held that all login information was equal and that the use of a fingerprint or a facial recognition scan is no different than coercing a password from an unwilling defendant.
The case discussed above stemmed from a denial of a search warrant for unspecified property. Law enforcement sought a search warrant in relation to a Facebook extortion crime. In addition to seeking permission to search the homes of the suspects, the warrant request also sought permission to force suspects to provide a fingerprint, facial or iris scan. The judge granted the search warrant for the property but denied it as it relates to opening devices without consent.
Any cellphone owner charged with a crime could face an issue similar to the one raised in this case. However, a defendant could give themselves a better chance at a positive outcome by hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney. Legal counsel may be able to negotiate with the prosecutor to have charges reduced. In some cases, an attorney could have charges dismissed altogether.