State Politics

Police can’t force suspect to use fingerprint to unlock phone, Idaho federal judge rules

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Idaho Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush denied a search warrant to force an individual to use their fingerprint to unlock a cellphone that is part of a criminal investigation.

Per the ruling unsealed May 9, an unnamed law enforcement agency served a search warrant on an unnamed suspect accused of possession of child pornography. The warrant was served at the suspect’s residence.

A cellphone was among the items seized. However, the smartphone was locked and required a fingerprint password to unlock it. Investigators applied for another search warrant to require the suspect’s fingerprint to see whether it would unlock the phone.

Because the fingerprint search warrant is still under seal, Bush would not disclose its details, including the suspect’s or law enforcement agency’s names.

Bush said that confiscating the phone was legal under the warrant and that investigators can find some other way to access the phone, but compelling the suspect to provide a fingerprint for the phone would violate the Fourth and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

“There is no consent here, and where consent is refused then the witness’s ‘free will’ is, by definition, absent. Consent and compulsion are diametrically different,” Bush stated.

Bush concluded that granting the warrant would violate the Fifth Amendment because “it would require the individual to give self-incriminating testimony” by showing who had control over the phone. It would therefore violate the Fourth Amendment because “the search and seizure would be unreasonable,” the judge stated.

Bush’s ruling comes on the heels of a January 2019 ruling in which an Oakland, California, federal judge ruled that law enforcement agencies cannot force people to use biometric features such as facial recognition, an iris or a fingerprint to unlock their cellphones or other devices, according to a Mercury News report.

Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.