Granted Warrant Allowed Feds To Force Everyone At Searched Residence To Unlock Devices With Their Fingerprints
from the hello-dystopia dept
Thomas Fox-Brewster of Forbes has dug up an unsealed memorandum in support of a federal search warrant demanding… all the fingerprints of every occupant in the searched residence.
FORBES found a court filing, dated May 9 2016, in which the Department of Justice sought to search a Lancaster, California, property. But there was a more remarkable aspect of the search, as pointed out in the memorandum: “authorization to depress the fingerprints and thumbprints of every person who is located at the SUBJECT PREMISES during the execution of the search and who is reasonably believed by law enforcement to be the user of a fingerprint sensor-enabled device that is located at the SUBJECT PREMISES and falls within the scope of the warrant.” The warrant was not available to the public, nor were other documents related to the case.
“While the government does not know ahead of time the identity of every digital device or fingerprint (or indeed, every other piece of evidence) that it will find in the search, it has demonstrated probable cause that evidence may exist at the search location, and needs the ability to gain access to those devices and maintain that access to search them. For that reason, the warrant authorizes the seizure of ‘passwords, encryption keys, and other access devices that may be necessary to access the device,’” the document read.
Not only are the devices being seized, but so are any passwords, which does carry some implications, but not necessarily at the point of seizure. It's the refusal to turn over passwords or encryption keys in the face of a court order that can result in contempt charges, and it's still less-than-settled that access information has no testimonial value.
But even the seizure of these devices in hopes of searching them later (but securing fingerprints to unlock them first) is a Fourth Amendment problem if they're accessed in nearly any way during the unlocking process. One court found, post-Riley, that simply opening a flip phone constituted a search. In that context, forcing a finger onto the phone and viewing the screen's contents could be considered a search -- and a warrantless one at that.
Of course, the government cited plenty of cases to back up its seizure, detention of residents, and its taking of fingerprints -- most of them at least 30 years old.
It also cited Holt v. United States, a 1910 case, and United States v. Dionisio, a 1973 case, though it did point to more recent cases, including Virginia v. Baust, where the defendant was compelled to provide his fingerprint to unlock a device (though Baust did provide his biometric data, it failed to open the iPhone; after 48 hours of not using Touch ID or a reboot Apple asks for the code to be re-entered.).
As for the Fourth, the feds said protections against unreasonable searches did not stand up when “the taking of fingerprints is supported by reasonable suspicion,” citing 1985′s Hayes v. Florida. Other cases, dated well before the advent of smartphones, were used to justify any brief detention that would arise from forcing someone to open their device with a fingerprint.
This is the reality of what the government is seeking: law enforcement officers detaining suspects and non-suspects alike and forcing them to apply their fingers to all locked devices on the premises. If this is the new normal for warrant service, it's time for the courts to step up and be a bit more aggressive in holding the government to particularity requirements.