Cell Phones in Today's Society
Now more than ever, people are reliant on the use of cell phones. Cell phones were once a luxury item, but are now seen as a necessity by a larger and larger percentage of society every day. On top of being used by more people than ever, cell phones are used to store more information than ever before. While early cell phones only functioned as telephones, modern cell phones are capable of performing most functions of a desktop computer. People's cell phones contain intimate details about every aspect of their lives.
For law enforcement, society's increased reliance on cell phones means that they have become an important source of evidence in criminal investigations. As a result, law enforcement frequently seeks to seize and search the cellular devices of those suspected of criminal activity. However, law enforcement agents have run into significant hurdles when attempting to search cell phones due to many newer phones being equipped with a fingerprint locking system. On these phones, the contents of the phone cannot be viewed without first being unlocked through the use of the owner's fingerprint. When police encounter a phone equipped with such technology they must either get the owner to voluntarily unlock the device or force the owner to unlock the device. This has raised the important legal question of whether the police can force a suspect to provide their fingerprint to unlock their phone.
Recent Minnesota Supreme Court Decision
The Minnesota Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to decide whether a suspect can be forced to provide their fingerprint in order to unlock a cellular device. In that case, police suspected the defendant was involved in a burglary. The police were able to obtain a search warrant for the man's cell phone and lawfully seized the phone. However, when they attempted to search the phone, they discovered that it was protected by a fingerprint lock and the defendant would not voluntarily provide his fingerprint.
The defendant argued that he could not be compelled to provide his fingerprint because to do so would be a violation of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The district court found that there was no Fifth Amendment violation and the defendant was required to provide his fingerprint. The defendant appealed and the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court. Finally, the defendant petitioned for review from the Minnesota Supreme Court, which was granted.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reasoned that because compelling the defendant to provide his fingerprint only elicited physical evidence of his body and did not reveal the contents of his mind, there was no violation of the Fifth Amendment.
What does this mean?
The result of the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision means that when police have lawfully seized a suspect's cell phone via a search warrant, the suspect can be compelled to provide their fingerprint to unlock the phone so that it can be searched. However, this does not mean that an officer can make you unlock your phone for them whenever they ask. This situation is limited to circumstances where the police have obtained a warrant, lawfully seized a phone, and have been thwarted by a fingerprint lock. Absent those circumstances, you are not required to unlock your phone for a police officer. If you have had your phone searched or are being asked to consent to a search of your phone, contact the attorneys of Olson Defense at (952) 835-1088 right away to protect your rights.