Enlarge /. A close-up of the PIN entry form on the unlock screen of a smartphone.
Smartphones are not only a rich database for marketers, but also for law enforcement agencies. Police and federal investigators love to get their hands on all this juicy personal information during an investigation. Thanks to the fourth change to the U.S. Constitution and the jurisdiction based on it, the police generally need a warrant to search your phone – and that includes looking at the lock screen that a judge has decided (PDF).
When the topic of a phone search in court comes up, the question usually has to do with unlocking. In general, courts have ruled that law enforcement can force you to use your body like your fingerprint (or face) to unlock a phone, but it can't force you to share knowledge like a PIN. In this case, however, the FBI didn't unlock the phone. Instead, they just looked at the phone's lock screen to find evidence.
A Washington state man was arrested in May 2019 and charged with several robbery and assault charges. The suspect Joseph Sam used an unspecified Motorola smartphone. When he was arrested, one of the officers present pressed the on / off button to access the phone's lock screen. The file does not indicate that an officer present was trying to unlock the phone or get the suspect to do so at the time.
In February 2020, the FBI turned on the phone to photograph the phone's lock screen, which displayed the name "Streezy". Sam's lawyer filed a motion arguing that this evidence should not have been sought without a warrant and should therefore be suppressed.
District judge John Coughenour from the US District Court in Seattle agreed. In his decision, the judge found that the police, who were looking at the phone at the time of the arrest, and the FBI, which looked at it again afterwards, were separate questions. The police are allowed to conduct searches without a warrant in special circumstances, Coughenour wrote, and a look at the phone's lock screen may have been allowed because it was "either lawfully arrested or as part of a police effort to inventory personal property" "" the arrested person, Coughenour was unable to determine what the police were doing, and ordered clarification to determine if their search for the phone was within these limits.
But where police action was unclear, the FBIs were both crystal clear and contrary to the defendant's rights after the fourth constitutional amendment, Coughenour decided. "Here the FBI physically interfered with Mr. Sam's personal effect when the FBI turned on his phone to take a picture of the phone's lock screen." He found that this was a "search" in the sense of the fourth amendment, and since the FBI had no search warrant for the search, it was unconstitutional.
Government lawyers argued that Sam shouldn't expect privacy on his lock screen – after all, that's what anyone who isn't you should see when trying to access the phone. Instead of determining whether the lock screen is private or not, Coughenour determined that it didn't matter. "If the government receives evidence of physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area, as the FBI has done here, it is" unnecessary to check "whether the government has also violated the defendant's reasonable expectations of privacy," he wrote .
Basically, he decided, the FBI pressed the button on the phone to activate the search lock screen, regardless of the type of lock screen.