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Can Police Force You to Unlock Your Phone?


When Apple first introduced the fingerprint scanner on its iPhones, it was considered a huge step towards providing greater security for cell phone owners. Because many people wouldn’t bother to set a cumbersome passcode on their phones, it was believed that making the unlock process easier and faster would encourage more people to protect their devices. And it worked – the system has really taken off.

Now, however, the question many people are asking is how an iPhone secured by a fingerprint should be handled in a court of law. The question went unanswered until 2014, when a judge in Virginia ruled that police have the authority to force a suspect to unlock their smartphones using their fingerprint. It didn’t appear that any federal law enforcement agency had ever used the power granted by this ruling until February of this year, when a Los Angeles judge signed a search warrant requiring a woman to use her fingerprint to unlock her iPhone.

How are fingerprints different than passcodes? The Fifth Amendment provides Americans with the right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination. Thus, the government cannot force someone to give up a memorized passcode. However, things like your likeness, handwriting samples, DNA, and yes, fingerprints, are still considered fair game because they don’t reveal anything in your mind.

It is becoming more common for judges to sign warrants for fingerprints to unlock phones, especially in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, when the FBI tried to compel Apple to create special software to bypass smartphone encryption features. The FBI finally got their way and paid over $1 million for the technique. They now hold the key to unlocking any iPhone 5C running on iOS 9.

What does this mean for you as a smartphone user? It means that even as smartphones become increasingly more secure, there are always limits to privacy.

Protecting Your Rights in St. Louis

If you have been accused of committing a crime in St. Louis, you should immediately enlist the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney at The Hammer Law Firm, LLC. Our legal team has more than 60 years of combined experience protecting the rights of the accused. You are innocent until proven guilty, and as such we are prepared to offer you the advice you need to resolve your case as quickly and favorably as possible.

Contact a St. Louis criminal defense lawyer at our firm when you call (314) 334-3807.

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