A decade ago, smartphones were in their infancy. The iPhone was not even a year old and widespread adoption had not yet occurred. Many were suspicious of the touch screen interface, and lawyers in particular clung to the idea that they required the tactile feel of a traditional keyboard.
Fast forward to 2019, and smartphones are commonplace even amongst lawyers. In fact, according to the latest ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, 95% of all lawyers use smartphones on a daily basis.
Not only has smartphone usage grown over the past decade, so too have the technologies that power the devices. Today’s smartphones are essentially minicomputers with memory and processing power comparable to that of some desktop and laptop computers. For that reason, smartphones have become indispensable and people store all sorts of information on them.
It’s no surprise then that law enforcement routinely seeks access to smartphones of suspected criminals. Of course, constitutional protections still apply. For example, for a number of years now, it has been generally accepted that law enforcement cannot require you to provide the password to your smartphone, since doing so is compelled testimony and thus falls under the protection of the Fifth Amendment.
However, with the release of smartphones with biometric unlocking features, the waters were muddied. Many courts subsequently concluded that the biometric data used to unlock phones (ie. fingerprints and faces) is not inherently testimonial and thus requiring a defendant to open a device using biometric data does not violate the Fifth Amendment.
The tide may be turning, however, with the release of a recent federal district court decision on January 10th. Northern District of California Magistrate Judge Candice A Westmore considered this very issue and issued an important ruling in The Matter of the Search of a Residence In Oakland, California (online: https://tinyurl.com/ycs4wdy7). Specifically, the Court considered whether law enforcement should be granted a search warrant that required any individual present at the time of the search could be compelled to “press a finger (including a thumb) or utilize other biometric features, such as facial or iris recognition, for the purpose of unlocking the digital devices found in order to permit a search of the contents…”
In reaching its decision, the Court first concluded that the search request was overly broad, and that there was insufficient probable cause to: 1) compel anyone other than the suspects to unlock their devices or 2) to seize the device of anyone other than the suspects who were present at the time of the search.
Next the Court turned to the issue of whether the suspects could be required to provide biometric data to unlock any devices that were reasonably believed to belong to the suspects. At the outset the Court wisely noted that because of the rapid pace of technological change, courts must adopt rules that take into account more sophisticated technologies that currently exist or are in development and that courts “have an obligation to safeguard constitutional rights and cannot permit those rights to be diminished merely due to the advancement of technology.”
The Court then turned to ascertaining whether providing biometric data is a testimonial act, and concluded that it was: “(A) biometric is analogous to the nonverbal, physiological responses elicited during a polygraph test, which are used to determine guilt or innocence, and are considered testimonial.”
Finally the Court reiterated the Supreme Court’s 2014 determination in Riley v. California that today’s smartphones contain large amounts of incredibly private data regarding the owner of the phone and others with whom that person communicates: “smartphones are minicomputers…a search of which ‘would typically expose the government to far more than the most exhaustive search of a house. A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home, it also contains a broad array of private information never found in an home in any form…’”
For any number of reasons, this ruling is notable. For starters the Court acknowledged the undeniable effects of the rapid pace of technology on our culture. It was reassuring to read this thoughtful and insightful ruling, especially since it took into account the nature of rapidly evolving technologies and how they may potentially - and sometimes unintentionally - impact our constitutional rights. Also of import is the Court’s understanding of existing technology and its on-point comparison of it to more traditionally accepted testimonial evidence.
In short, I believe that the conclusion reached by the Court was the correct one. Let’s hope other courts follow suit.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.