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Ruling may point to greater protections for suspects' phones

Many criminal defense lawyers in Maryland and across the country have counseled their clients to use alphanumeric passcodes or passwords for their mobile devices. As people come to depend on their mobile devices for all aspects of their daily lives and communications, they may also be concerned about the potential for them to be opened by law enforcement without their consent. In the past, multiple courts have ruled that police cannot force people to disclose their mobile phone passcodes. This is considered to violate the constitutional right against forced self-incrimination.

However, police have been allowed to use biometric options, like iris locks, face recognition or fingerprint technologies, to open phones locked with these methods. Therefore, people concerned about privacy have often preferred to rely on traditional passwords. However, people who have never been in contact with the criminal justice system before may be unaware of the difference in how these different types of protection are treated. A federal judge in California has ruled, however, that biometric locks should be treated identically to passcode locks when police want to examine a device.

The case involved a search warrant for the home of a person suspected of involvement in an online extortion complaint. Police wanted permission to use biometrics to open any available phones found within the residence. The judge denied the request not only due to its lack of specificity but also because the use of biometric technology without consent is another form of forced self-incrimination. Differing with prior rulings, she noted that the law needed to keep pace with technological advances.

People facing police questioning or searches may know little about their rights under these circumstances. A criminal defense lawyer can help people dealing with law enforcement protect their rights when questioned, prevent and challenge unlawful searches and present a strong defense if charged.

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