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iPrivilege: Virginia Beach Judge Finds Prosecution Can Force Defendant To Supply Fingerprint To Unlock iPhone, by Evidence ProfBlogger, Editor Colin Miller, EvidProf Blogger


In relevant part, the Fifth Amendment states that:

“No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself….”

The Supreme Court has stated that the Fifth Amendment only covers “testimonial” evidence that results from compelled communicative acts, i.e., acts which disclose the content of one’s mind. Therefore, the Fifth Amendment does not cover a suspect’s act of appearing in a lineup or giving a blood sample to determine whether there are drugs in his system. The Fifth Amendment also does not cover the act of completing a handwriting exemplar. Imagine that the police find an alleged confession note written by the defendant. The prosecution can force the defendant to complete a handwriting exemplar in which the defendant writes a pre-printed paragraph in his handwriting so that a handwriting expert can compare the exemplar and the confession note. All of these and similar acts are not communicative because they are nontestimonial in that they do not force the defendant to disclose the contents of his mind.

What about if the defendant has encrypted files on his computer? Can the prosecution force the defendant to decrypt them? Some courts have said no. Other courts have said yes.

Can the prosecution force a defendant to supply his fingerprint to use for the TouchID on his iPhone? For the last year, I’ve used this article to teach my students that a judge could likely order a defendant to supply his fingerprint to unlock his iPhone. Recently, this possibility has become a reality.

According to an article in SlashGear:

[A] judge has ruled that you can be forced to relinquish your fingerprint to investigators seeking access to your device. The reason, says the judge, is that the fingerprint isn’t knowledge like a password, but is instead a physical object of sorts, like a key or a DNA sample.

The ruling was made recently by Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Steven Frucci, and was the result of a case against EMS captain David Baust, who was accused of attempted murder. The case’s prosecutors wanted access to Baust’s phone, believing that it might have a video of the alleged crime, but the defendant’s lawyer argued against this.

And, according to an article in the Huffington Post:

[I]t’s unclear how the ruling will impact Baust’s case. If his phone is protected by Touch ID, prosecutors could access it using Frucci’s ruling. If the phone is protected by a passcode or both a passcode and Touch ID, they can’t . . . .

One workaround to this issue could be to just turn off your phone if cops approach. In that case, you’d have to enter your four-digit pin when you turn it back on, even if you use Touch ID. . . .