Locking your smartphone with a fingerprint is usually more secure than locking it with a passcode — until you reach a court of law, that is. A court in Virginia has ruled that while police cannot force someone to unlock a phone with a password, they can indeed require a suspect to unlock it with a fingerprint scan.
The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Virginia reports that a paramedic named David Baust has been accused of domestically abusing his girlfriend, and key evidence in the case may reside on his smartphone. The smartphone is locked with Baust's fingerprint, but Judge Steven C. Frucci has ruled that police can compel Baust to give up his fingerprint so police can try to unlock the device.
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The make and model of the phone in question were not identified in the newspaper story, and detailed case records do not appear to be available online, but the only widely used smartphones that offered fingerprint locking at the time of the original domestic-abuse charges in February 2014 were the Apple iPhone 5s and the HTC One Max.
Frucci ruled that while he could not compel Baust to divulge his or her passcode, because that would violate Baust's Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, he noted that a fingerprint is a routine part of most criminal investigations. (Other court rulings have ruled that defendants can be forced to give up passwords, and the legal issue is far from resolved.)
Just as the police can take a fingerprint or DNA sample against a defendant's will, Frucci reasoned, so too can they use a fingerprint to unlock a smartphone.
Bear in mind that even though police can now use Baust's fingerprint to unlock his smartphone, the reasons why are rather tenuous. Baust had video equipment in his bedroom, and the police believe it is possible (but not definite) that some of these videos may now reside on his phone.
Furthermore, if Baust does have a passcode in addition to a fingerprint lock, the police will not legally be able to access his phone, at least not per Frucci's ruling. Prosecutors could still appeal Frucci's decision in an effort to find a judge who disagrees about the Fifth Amendment status of the passcode.
Although the Circuit Court's ruling only applies to Princess Anne County, under Virginia law the ruling can set a legal precedent for the entire state. Other states and the federal government are not bound by the ruling, so it remains to be seen how the issue of fingerprint-vs.-passcode self-incrimination will play out in various jurisdictions across the country.
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Marshall Honorof is a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him @marshallhonorof and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.
The issue is the 5th amendment right to not incriminate one's self. No warrant can force you to incriminate yourself.
Your fingerprints are fairly "in plain view" anyway, so quite accessible. Having been arrested, the defendant would already have been compelled to give up fingerprints. Sure, your prints may unlock a phone which could be incriminating, and is thus a 5th Amendment concern, however, if you kept photos in a locked chest and kept the key on a necklace, would it be against your rights to use it to unlock the chest when conducting a lawful (warranted) search? If you think that would be in violation, what about using a photograph of that plainly-visible key to create a copy and thus unlock the chest? Divulging a password could border on self-incrimination (giving self-witness that you truly had access to the passworded resource in question), and can thus be more clearly protected by the 5th amendment.
the judge is wrong and there is no checks and balances on the judges, police or court system to deal with immediate abuses except the laws on the books concerning false arrest, conspiracy, sedition, and treason laws which allow any one to forcibly stop government workers of any position in some cases with deadly forces if required. it's been ruled constitutional by a great many supreme court cases, not very recently since party line appointed judges have been installed into power however.
corrupt judges can only be removed by a superior court panel and only in a review of previous actions. the wheels of justice are slow. that's why we have the court of appeals...incase you get stuck with a corrupt or dumb judge.
a smart justice official would have already unlocked this phone using the booking print on file of an arrested suspect, if the suspect was never arrested tho... the court is SOL.