A judge has ruled that the act of looking at a phone’s lock screen requires a warrant – in some circumstances. This ruling was made by the Honorable John C. Coughenour in the United States District Court Western District of Washington at Seattle. It seems to me that this ruling requires the FBI to have a warrant before they can look at the lock screen on someone’s phone.
The case is United States of America v. Joseph Sam. It is regarding a motion filed by Mr. Sam’s lawyer arguing that the evidence obtained from looking at the lock screen should not have been sought without a warrant and should be suppressed.
There were two things to consider in this case: the actions taken by the police when they arrested Mr. Sam, and the actions of the FBI taken later. The Court saw these actions as two separate things.
In regards to the actions of the FBI, Judge John C. Coughenour pointed out that the Fourth Amendment protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of “their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” The FBI powered on Mr. Sam’s phone in order to take a picture of the lock screen. In short, the FBI needed a warrant in order to do that, and did not have a warrant. Based on this, the Judge determined that this search was unconstitutional. Mr. Sam’s motion to suppress the evidence the FBI gathered during this search was granted.
Things get a little cloudy in regards to the actions of the police at the time of Mr. Sam’s arrest. It was unclear to the Court why the police “felt it was necessary to power on or manipulate Mr. Sam’s cell phone to properly inventory the phone”.
It was also unclear if that police department procedures require officers to power on every cell phone that they inventory, or whether the police searched the phone. As such, the Judge could not resolve Mr. Sam’s motion to suppress the evidence found during the police’s examination of his phone.
To me, it sounds like the FBI needs to obtain a warrant to power on someone’s phone, and to take a photo of the lock screen, beforehand. Pushing the buttons on a phone in order to activate it counts as a search.