Idaho Magistrate Judge Shoots Down Another Government Request For Compelled Fingerprint Production
from the on-the-Fifth,-I've-told-you-twice dept
Another small victory for Constitutional rights comes via the same federal magistrate who previously rejected another law enforcement request to compel production of fingerprints to unlock a phone.
In May, federal magistrate judge Ronald E. Bush said compelled production of fingerprints violates both the Fourth and Fifth Amendment. He declared the fingerprint application itself to be a search, one performed with the assistance of the suspect. There’s the Fourth Amendment issue.
And since the government hadn’t provided evidence tying the suspect to the phone, producing fingerprints would provide the government with testimonial evidence it didn’t have. The government wanted to search the phone for “indica of ownership” — something it hoped to perform after it had already compelled production of fingerprints. The government had no “foregone conclusion” to work with, so forcing a suspect to give up information only they know (namely, possibly verifying ownership by unlocking the phone) implicated his Fifth Amendment protections against being forced to testify against himself.
In this case, Judge Bush has handed down another denial [PDF]. Once again, the government wants to compel the unlocking of a device but doesn’t have everything it needs. What the government does have isn’t much. The evidence tying the suspect to child porn possession is mostly ephemeral: IP addresses, email addresses, and online accounts. Using this as probable cause, the government is asking to search electronics seized from a searched residence. (The government also wants to search the suspect’s car, presumably in case any electronics are stashed there.)
As the court points out, the government wants to do things to a phone it hasn’t shown will actually need to have this stuff done to it. It’s working off an assumption and that assumption isn’t enough for the judge to agree to the government’s proposed rights violations.
The affidavit describes a feature of the smartphone which, according to the investigator, offers users “the ability to unlock the device via the use of a fingerprint or thumbprint.” It also describes that, in the investigator’s “training and experience, cellular telephone users often enable” such a touch identification security feature “because it is considered to be a more convenient way to unlock the device than by entering a numeric or alphanumeric passcode or password, as well as a more secure way to protect the device’s contents. This is particularly true when the user(s) of the device are engaged in criminal activities and thus have a heightened concern about securing the contents of the device.”
The affiant also states that “[t]he passcode or password that would unlock the cellular telephone device found during the search of [the individual, the vehicle, or the residence] is not known to law enforcement. Thus, it will likely be necessary for law enforcement to press [the individual’s] fingers and thumbs to the [smartphone] found during the search . . . in an attempt to unlock the device for the purpose of executing the search authorized by this warrant.” However, the affidavit does not describe a particular reason to believe that the subject cellphone has enabled a touch identification feature or would have such feature enabled if the device were seized during execution of a search warrant.
The attached footnote provides further reasons why the magistrate is rejecting this application for application of fingerprints.
Regardless of the constitutional issues, the application may also be premature and not ripe for decision. The applicant presupposes that a search will uncover and result in seizure of a specific smartphone at the time of the search but does not identify the device beyond a make and model and does not account for the possibility that a search might uncover additional or different devices.
The court reminds the government that it can no longer take phone searches as lightly as it once did. The Supreme Court’s Riley decision made it clear phones are not pants pockets or suitcases or file cabinets. In many cases, they can provide access to a large portion of a person’s life. When the government wants access to this wealth of information, it needs to deal with sureties and particulars, not assumptions devices will hold evidence and suspects will provide the keys for entrance. Here, the government does not have enough to demand the production of these keys.
Further, the government cannot demand someone testify against himself. While other courts are still wrestling with this question, Judge Bush’s stance on this issue is crystal clear:
[S]ome actions are not within the Fifth Amendment privilege. Furnishing a blood sample, for instance, or providing a handwriting or voice exemplar, standing in a lineup, or submitting to fingerprinting for identification purposes are not testimonial communications because such actions do not require the suspect “to disclose any knowledge he might have” or to “speak his guilt.” Doe, 487 U.S. at 210–211 (citations omitted). The relevant distinction is the “extortion of information from the accused, . . . the attempt to force him to disclose the contents of his own mind.” Id. at 211 (citations omitted).
There is exactly that “extortion” of information here, however. The Government seeks to use the force of a search warrant to compel an individual to literally “open” the “privacies of [his/her] life,” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. at 403, and, by doing so, “to conced[e] the existence, possession and control, and authenticity of the documents tend[ing] to incriminate him.” In re Grand Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum Dated Mar. 25, 2011, 670 F.3d at 1343. The act of being forced to use one’s fingerprint to successfully open the contents of a smartphone is the equivalent of forcing a tangible oral or written statement from that individual that he or she has at least some degree of possession and control of the phone and possession, control and knowledge of its contents.
Once again, the court finds compelled fingerprint production to unlock devices “testimonial.” And if it’s testimonial, it’s blocked by the Fifth Amendment. The government will just have to find another way to get at the evidence it thinks might reside in the phones it thinks it might find whenever it actually manages to get a warrant signed by this judge. Until then, it seriously needs to rethink its approach to this problem because the usual stuff isn’t going to work in this court.