Looking at a phone's lock screen also requires a warrant, judge rules

The FBI accessing a lock screen violates someone's Fourth Amendment rights, one court found.

Abrar Al-Heeti
Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET

Abrar Al-Heeti is a video producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for the culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Abrar was named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.

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Law enforcement needs a warrant to check someone's lock screen, a judge ruled. 

Angela Lang/CNET

US law enforcement pushing a button to bring up a phone's lock screen qualifies as a search and requires a warrant, a judge ruled this week. The ruling was earlier reported by Ars Technica

The decision came as a part of a case in which Joseph Sam of Washington state was arrested last year and indicted on charges related to robbery and assault. During his arrest, an officer allegedly pressed the power button on his phone and called up the lock screen. 

In February, the FBI turned on Sam's phone to take a picture of the lock screen. His lawyer filed a motion saying the evidence shouldn't have been collected without a warrant. 

Judge John Coughenour of the US District Court in Seattle ruled in favor of that argument, stating that the FBI's actions went against Sam's Fourth Amendment rights. He determined that turning on Sam's phone to take a picture of the lock screen qualifies as a "search" under the amendment. Because the FBI didn't have a warrant, he deemed the act unconstitutional. 

When it came to the issue of the police looking at Sam's phone, the judge wrote they're allowed to conduct searches without a search warrant in certain cases, and looking at the lock screen might have been OK since it "took place either incident to a lawful arrest or as part of the police's efforts to inventory the personal effects" of Sam. Coughenour asked for a clarification on how the police acted to see whether their search fell within those categories. 

Government attorneys said Sam shouldn't have expected privacy related to his lock screen, since that's what anyone sees whenever they try to access a phone. Coughenour said determining whether the lock screen is private doesn't matter. 

"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 wrote.

Courts have previously stated that law enforcement can't force someone to unlock a phone with their face, fingerprint or other biometric features. 

Watch this: The Trump administration and Apple are set for a new battle on encryption