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Court rules feds need warrant to look at your phone’s lockscreen

The court ruled it's protected by the Fourth Amendment.

On May 18th, United States District Judge in Seattle John C. Coughenour ruled that law enforcement isn’t even allowed to look at your phone’s lock screen without a warrant.

We obtained a copy of the ruling for you here.

Joseph Sam was arrested on May 15, 2019 on the charge of conspiracy to commit robbery. At the time of the arrest, the officer searched Sam and seized his smartphone.

The contention, in this case, is regarding what happened after the arrest. Police reports describe the wallpaper on Sam’s lock screen that includes the name “STREEZY”, which presumably ties Sam to potential illegal activity. On February 13, 2020, the FBI removed Sam’s phone from inventory, powered it on, and took a picture of the lock screen.

Sam aims to suppress any evidence obtained from these two events, arguing they are unconstitutional.

The court however ruled that these two events are not legally indistinguishable. The police examination of the device was part of the lawful arrest process and inventorying Sam’s personal belongings. The FBI’s examination, on the other hand, was not legally necessary and was done with the specific intent of gathering evidence.

“Here, the FBI physically intruded on Mr. Sam’s personal effect when the FBI powered on his phone to take a picture of the phone’s lock screen,” explains Coughenour, citing other examples of unconstitutional “search” like attaching a GPS device to a car, searching a bag by squeezing it, and even moving stereo equipment to see a concealed serial number.

The government tried to argue that Sam had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his phone’s lock screen, but the judge ruled that the expectation is irrelevant to the person’s constitutional rights.

“When the Government gains evidence by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area – as the FBI did here – it is ‘unnecessary to consider’ whether the government also violated the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The judge granted Sam’s motion to suppress the FBI’s evidence, but said that the court cannot decide whether the police needed a warrant because the circumstances of the police search were “unclear” and required clarification.

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