Judge Rules FBI Cannot View a Phone Lock Screen Without a Warrant

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The FBI broke the law when it powered on a suspect's smartphone to take a photo of his lock screen without a warrant, a U.S. District Court Judge has ruled (via Ars Technica).


In a Seattle court, Judge John Coughenour determined that gathering evidence from a lock screen constitutes a search, therefore doing so without first obtaining a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search seizure.

Joseph Sam from Washington state was arrested in May 2019 and indicted on several charges related to robbery and assault. The suspect was in possession of a Motorola smartphone. According to Sam, one of the officers present at his arrest pressed the power button to bring up the phone's lock screen.
What is known is that on February 13, 2020, the FBI removed Mr. Sam's phone from inventory, powered the phone on, and took a photograph of the lock screen [...] The photograph shows the name "STREEZY" right underneath the time and date.
The suspect's name revealed on the phone's unlock screen turned out to be useful evidence. Sam's lawyer subsequently filed a motion arguing that this evidence should not have been sought without a warrant and should therefore be suppressed.

Judge Coughenour ruled that the police were within their rights to look at the lock screen at the time of the arrest, given that certain circumstances allow for a search to take place without a warrant. However, investigators involved in later search and seizure must obtain a warrant first.
The police's examination took place either incident to a lawful arrest or as part of the police's efforts to inventory the personal effects found during Mr. Sam's arrest. The FBI's examination, by contrast, occurred long after the police had arrested Mr. Sam and inventoried his personal effects. Those examinations present significantly different legal issues [...]

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.
Usually when the topic of a smartphone search comes up in court, the question has to do with forcing suspects to unlock their phone, so this is the first case where merely viewing a lock screen has been subject to judicial scrutiny.

A 2019 U.S. court ruling judged that law enforcement officials can't force smartphone users to unlock their devices using fingerprints or other biometric features such as facial recognition, since doing so would run afoul of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Previous to the 2019 ruling, multiple cases involved law enforcement forcing suspects to unlock their iPhones and other devices using biometric authentication.

Note: Due to the political or social nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Political News forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Article Link: Judge Rules FBI Cannot View a Phone Lock Screen Without a Warrant
 

newyorksole

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You learn something new everyday... My question is, why would they take a picture of it? Why couldn’t they just write that name down? Lol. It’s not like there was any other info on the screen.

Interesting stuff.
 

clayj

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The judge is correct. There ALWAYS needs to be a warrant, especially for anything not in plain sight.
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You learn something new everyday... My question is, why would they take a picture of it? Why couldn’t they just write that name down? Lol. It’s not like there was any other info on the screen.

Interesting stuff.
You take a picture because that's better proof of what was on the phone. Otherwise some crooked cop could just write something down and SAY he saw it.
 

Appleman3546

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May 13, 2019
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This decision so fact sensitive and nuanced. If the lock screen is on and in a public place, it is available to the public and the US Supreme Court will likely rule it is like viewing a car on a public road (permissible to survey without a warrant). If the screen is off or in a private place, there is likely to be a reasonable expectation of privacy. Regardless, some states have already permitted access to phones in lawsuits such as Antico v Sindt Trucking in Florida (later approved by the Supreme Court of Florida in Weaver v Myers)
 
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mrbrown

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Mar 27, 2004
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Reading the judge's ruling, it appears as though the FBI's "search" of his lock screen - powering on the device and taking a picture of the lock screen, long after the device had been in the possession of the Government following his arrest - was unconstitutional, but the Court was unable to determine if the police officer doing the same thing at the time of the arrest (a search incident to arrest, which is governed under a different standard) was valid, due to the Government's failure to make an adequate record. The court ordered the parties to supplement the record so it could make a finding as to that search.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this a ruling made by a Senior US District Judge - it is likely to be appealed by the Government and its findings are really only binding in the Western District of Washington. Case law will vary from district to district and circuit to circuit. I can almost guarantee, although I have admittedly not done the research, that this would never fly in the 8th Circuit.
 

calzon65

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Jul 16, 2008
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Requiring a search warrant to look inside a phone, like looking inside a home or building, is reasonable and protects Americans' 4th amendment rights against illegal search and seizure, but a search warrant to look at the "outside" of the phone seems nuts.
 
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decypher44

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I’m not taking a stance either way, but I have a question:

If you are pulled over in your car, and police have probable cause to a search, they can go through every piece, crevice, box, etc in your car. They can open trunks, glove boxes, consoles. And if they find , say a box, inside the car, they can open that up.

So if they can legally do that, why can’t they open a phone?
 

MadDawg2020

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Jun 20, 2012
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Don’t worry folks - Mitch McConnell is working very hard right now to push new search and seizure laws through the Senate that will guarantee that search warrants will no longer be necessary for the Government to search any of our data any time they want, on any device you own and for any reason they want, with no probably cause, no notification or no compensation to you ever, - regardless of you were involved in a crime or not!
 

Small White Car

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I do wonder if the “pushing the button” part of it is going to be the lynchpin here.

In other words, the fact that my iPhone screen activates by picking up the phone seems, to me, to mean its lock screen would be fair game because you don’t have to activate it manually.

It’s more akin to a book cover whereas the screen on the other phone is more like opening a book and looking inside.
 

MacGod

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Jul 2, 2008
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I am pretty sure the issue here is the fact that they had the phone in evidence and physically had to power on the device, whereas if the device was simply seized in the field and was already powered on, there wouldn't be an expectation of privacy. It seems to be a vary narrow focus that is coming down on the side of the Constitution. Had this occurred at the time of arrest, might be a whole different story.
 

Shirasaki

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May 16, 2015
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Don’t worry folks - Mitch McConnell is working very hard right now to push new search and seizure laws through the Senate that will guarantee that search warrants will no longer be necessary for the Government to search any of our data any time they want, on any device you own and for any reason they want, with no probably cause, no notification or no compensation to you ever, - regardless of you were involved in a crime or not!
Looks like America will become the very country they are so vocal against, one way or another, piece by piece, bits by bits, dissembled, replaced, and removed.
 

Doctor Q

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I’m not taking a stance either way, but I have a question:

If you are pulled over in your car, and police have probable cause to a search, they can go through every piece, crevice, box, etc in your car. They can open trunks, glove boxes, consoles. And if they find , say a box, inside the car, they can open that up.

So if they can legally do that, why can’t they open a phone?
I think this decision is saying that they CAN look at the lockscreen at the time of arrest, but authorities can't look at it later as a way to gather evidence. The leads to the question of whether police can take a photo of the lockscreen during an arrest, when it might later be used as evidence.
 
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RalfTheDog

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Feb 23, 2010
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I’m not taking a stance either way, but I have a question:

If you are pulled over in your car, and police have probable cause to a search, they can go through every piece, crevice, box, etc in your car. They can open trunks, glove boxes, consoles. And if they find , say a box, inside the car, they can open that up.

So if they can legally do that, why can’t they open a phone?
At the time of arrest, they are not searching for evidence, they are searching for anything that might be a threat to the police making the arrest. The evidence they find is a side effect. Once the suspect is in custody, safety issues are no longer as much of a question.
 

topmounter

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Jun 18, 2009
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I do wonder if the “pushing the button” part of it is going to be the lynchpin here.

In other words, the fact that my iPhone screen activates by picking up the phone seems, to me, to mean its lock screen would be fair game because you don’t have to activate it manually.

It’s more akin to a book cover whereas the screen on the other phone is more like opening a book and looking inside.
The button pushing aspect seems to be the critical issue post-arrest. The murky bit is what the arresting officer(s) are able to or not able to do sans warrant at the time of arrest.
 

mschmalenbach

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Jul 22, 2008
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Requiring a search warrant to look inside a phone, like looking inside a home or building, is reasonable and protects Americans' 4th amendment rights against illegal search and seizure, but a search warrant to look at the "outside" of the phone seems nuts.
Hmmm interesting... for me this is more like looking in somebody's window - would that be unconstitutional without a warrant?
 
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Westside guy

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Guess I don't need to clear my calendar of entries like "meet up with Big Bob for fentanyl purchase" and "break Billy's thumbs if he doesn't have the cash by now" after all. Thank goodness, I rely on those to keep track.
 

calzon65

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Jul 16, 2008
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Hmmm interesting... for me this is more like looking in somebody's window - would that be unconstitutional without a warrant?
That is a very interesting question and I don't know the answer, but I admit that from personal non-legal position, I would certainly feel creepy to have folks, even law enforcement, outside a window looking in. I'm sure legal scholars and constitutional experts argue about that question ... of degree.
 

citysnaps

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I wonder if that would be extended to after arresting an individual, say for robbery, and then in the process of the arrest, opening the suspect's wallet to remove his driver's license in order to ascertain his identity. And then taking a picture of the driver's license.

With respect to the phone's lock screen, is there any practical downside of not obtaining the warrant, as the only information revealed was apparently the suspect's name. With that information not being able to be used as evidence, but surely the identity at that point is already known.
 

69Mustang

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That is a very interesting question and I don't know the answer, but I admit that from personal non-legal position, I would certainly feel creepy to have folks, even law enforcement, outside a window looking in. I'm sure legal scholars and constitutional experts argue about that question ... of degree.
But this isn't similar to looking in a window. The information the FBI obtained was not in plain sight. They had to 1. remove the phone from police inventory. 2. hit the power button to turn the phone on then 3. read the information from the lock screen. The information on the screen was not in plain sight at all.

I wonder if that would be extended to after arresting an individual, say for robbery, and then in the process of the arrest, opening the suspect's wallet to remove his driver's license in order to ascertain his identity. And then taking a picture of the driver's license.
Police can ask for identification if there is a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime. In the instance of your example, if the person is being arrested for robbery then reasonable suspicion would be met.
 

GuruZac

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Looks like America will become the very country they are so vocal against, one way or another, piece by piece, bits by bits, dissembled, replaced, and removed.
Yep. We’re crashing hard. I support this judges decision. The FBI, as evidenced by their recent shady past, will abuse the hell out their ability to access user info from confiscated phones.
 
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PinkyMacGodess

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The judge is correct. There ALWAYS needs to be a warrant, especially for anything not in plain sight.
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You take a picture because that's better proof of what was on the phone. Otherwise some crooked cop could just write something down and SAY he saw it.
Yes, and no. Wired magazine had an article series on what is permitted and not permitted, and the list of things police and LE can do is getting longer, and what they can't do is getting very much shorter. It's surprising how much of our rights are disappearing, and most people either don't know, or are too stupid to realize what it means.

Now a true story: In the early days of the bottle return law in the state I went to college, my girlfriend was stopped by a 'loose cannon' cop who had drawn on many 'kids', and had drawn on me twice. I think he recognized my car, pulled her over, was pissed it wasn't me, and threw a 5 alarm tantrum, making her pull the boxes of empties out of the car, and yelling at her that he was going to 'throw your skinny bitch ass in jail' if so much as a drop fell out of any of the bottles. Lucky for her, the bottles were months old, and bone dry. Getting that to stick, then, would have been a really high order. (She wasn't having this, and in the end asked him if she was free to go, or if he wanted to look for something else he could try to pin on her) So, never trust police officers (or their unions) with power, and their opinion on what rights need to be removed.

The rest of the story: Rumor has it he pulled over the son of a neighboring 'big city', and gave him the 'I'M THE LAW AROUND HERE!' routine, and was fired, but that was long after we left. (He patrolled the state highway that ran through 'his town', and I'm sure brought in a lot of money in tickets and fines) He deserved to rot in prison. Having a cop come up to you and see his gun first in the mirror, and coming around the door frame is something I don't think I will ever forget. All because he was a power hungry dip poop...
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Yep. We’re crashing hard. I support this judges decision. The FBI, as evidenced by their recent shady past, will abuse the hell out their ability to access user info from confiscated phones.
But we have to be aware that Mitch McConnell has wasted no time stuffing as many questionable judges into open spots as he can. Judges that are incredibly unqualified in far too many cases, and will toe the party line. THAT is how democracy dies.

It's called Despotism.

 
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