FBI needs a warrant just to look at your phone's lock screen, says judge

A new court ruling says that law enforcement needs to obtain a warrant just to look at your smartphone's lock screen. Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesJ By Matt Binder2020-05-22 15:18:11 UTC Law enforcement needs a warrant just...

FBI needs a warrant just to look at your phone's lock screen, says judge
A new court ruling says that law enforcement needs to obtain a warrant just to look at your smartphone's lock screen.
A new court ruling says that law enforcement needs to obtain a warrant just to look at your smartphone's lock screen.
Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesJ

Law enforcement needs a warrant just to look at your phone’s lock screen, according to a new court ruling.

Judge John Coughenour ruled in U.S. District Court in Seattle that the FBI violated a man’s constitutional rights when they took a photo of his Motorola smartphone’s lock screen. 

The case came before the judge after the man’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained from the lock screen, saying that police needed a warrant just to pull that screen up. The judge agreed.

Joseph Sam was arrested in May of last year, and was charged with robbery and assault. One of the arresting officers turned on his phone and took a look at the lock screen. This act, according Coughenour, may have been constitutional.

Seven months after Sam’s arrest, in February 2020, the FBI pulled his phone out of inventory, turned it on, and took a photograph of the lock screen, which displayed the name "Streezy." This violated Sam’s Fourth Amendment rights, according to the judge. 

The government attempted to make the case that a phone’s lock screen is public to anyone who powers on the phone, so there should be no expectation of privacy. The judge struck this argument down saying that this doesn’t matter “when the Government gains evidence by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area.”

“The FBI physically intruded on Mr. Sam's personal effect when the FBI powered on his phone to take a picture of the phone's lock screen," the judge ruled. That meant the FBI conducted a warrantless search.

As a result of the judge’s findings, the motion to suppress evidence obtained from Sam’s cell phone was granted in part. The judge still wants more information regarding the initial search from the arresting officers.

In the past, courts have ruled that a suspect cannot be forced to unlock their phone with their passcode, however they can be made to unlock their phone using Touch ID. However, a ruling from last year challenged that view. 

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