Judge Rules FBI Cannot View a Phone Lock Screen Without a Warrant

The FBI broke the law when it powered on a suspect's smartphone to take a photo of his lock screen without a warrant, a U.S. District Court Judge has ruled (via Ars Technica).

iphone11faceid
In a Seattle court, Judge John Coughenour determined that gathering evidence from a lock screen constitutes a search, therefore doing so without first obtaining a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search seizure.

Joseph Sam from Washington state was arrested in May 2019 and indicted on several charges related to robbery and assault. The suspect was in possession of a Motorola smartphone. According to Sam, one of the officers present at his arrest pressed the power button to bring up the phone's lock screen.

What is known is that on February 13, 2020, the FBI removed Mr. Sam's phone from inventory, powered the phone on, and took a photograph of the lock screen [...] The photograph shows the name “STREEZY” right underneath the time and date.

The suspect's name revealed on the phone's unlock screen turned out to be useful evidence. Sam's lawyer subsequently filed a motion arguing that this evidence should not have been sought without a warrant and should therefore be suppressed.

Judge Coughenour ruled that the police were within their rights to look at the lock screen at the time of the arrest, given that certain circumstances allow for a search to take place without a warrant. However, investigators involved in later search and seizure must obtain a warrant first.

The police's examination took place either incident to a lawful arrest or as part of the police's efforts to inventory the personal effects found during Mr. Sam's arrest. The FBI's examination, by contrast, occurred long after the police had arrested Mr. Sam and inventoried his personal effects. Those examinations present significantly different legal issues […]

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.

Usually when the topic of a smartphone search comes up in court, the question has to do with forcing suspects to unlock their phone, so this is the first case where merely viewing a lock screen has been subject to judicial scrutiny.

A 2019 U.S. court ruling judged that law enforcement officials can't force smartphone users to unlock their devices using fingerprints or other biometric features such as facial recognition, since doing so would run afoul of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Previous to the 2019 ruling, multiple cases involved law enforcement forcing suspects to unlock their iPhones and other devices using biometric authentication.

Note: Due to the political or social nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Political News forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Top Rated Comments

dannyyankou Avatar
13 months ago
This is constitutional law 101. The warrant is what makes “unreasonable search and seizure” reasonable.
Score: 25 Votes (Like | Disagree)
clayj Avatar
13 months ago
The judge is correct. There ALWAYS needs to be a warrant, especially for anything not in plain sight.


You learn something new everyday... My question is, why would they take a picture of it? Why couldn’t they just write that name down? Lol. It’s not like there was any other info on the screen.

Interesting stuff.
You take a picture because that's better proof of what was on the phone. Otherwise some crooked cop could just write something down and SAY he saw it.
Score: 21 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Scottsoapbox Avatar
13 months ago
The article title is missing the key word later.

As looking at the lock screen was ruled fine at the time of arrest.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Appleman3546 Avatar
13 months ago
This decision so fact sensitive and nuanced. If the lock screen is on and in a public place, it is available to the public and the US Supreme Court will likely rule it is like viewing a car on a public road (permissible to survey without a warrant). If the screen is off or in a private place, there is likely to be a reasonable expectation of privacy. Regardless, some states have already permitted access to phones in lawsuits such as Antico v Sindt Trucking in Florida (later approved by the Supreme Court of Florida in Weaver v Myers)
Score: 5 Votes (Like | Disagree)
MacBandit Avatar
13 months ago

just more reasons to lock down everything on the phone.. lol.
I have my phone setup is it doesn’t even show notifications until unlocked.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)
MadDawg2020 Avatar
13 months ago
Don’t worry folks - Mitch McConnell is working very hard right now to push new search and seizure laws through the Senate that will guarantee that search warrants will no longer be necessary for the Government to search any of our data any time they want, on any device you own and for any reason they want, with no probably cause, no notification or no compensation to you ever, - regardless of you were involved in a crime or not!
Score: 3 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

prosser macbook air colors stacked

Images Reveal Colorful New MacBook Air Design

Tuesday May 11, 2021 5:06 am PDT by
Apple's next MacBook Air will feature a completely new design and come in a range of colors like the 24-inch iMac, according to leaker Jon Prosser, who has now released supposedly accurate renders of the new machines based on leaked images. In a new video uploaded to YouTube channel Front Page Tech, Prosser elaborated on his previous prediction that Apple's next-generation MacBook Air models ...
iPhone 13 Camera Backs

iPhone 13 Models Will Be Slightly Thicker and Will Have Larger Camera Bumps

Monday May 10, 2021 10:41 am PDT by
Apple's upcoming iPhone 13 models will be slightly thicker than the iPhone 12 models and will also feature larger, thicker camera bumps with lenses that protrude less, according to iPhone 13 schematics seen by MacRumors. The new iPhone 13 and 13 Pro models are expected to feature a thickness of 7.57mm, up from 7.4mm in the iPhone 12 models. That's an increase of 0.17mm, which won't be hugely ...
3d printed airtag case siri remote

3D-Printed Case Lets You Attach an AirTag to Your Apple TV Remote

Monday May 10, 2021 8:11 am PDT by
Apple recently released a redesigned Siri Remote with a physical clickpad, but if you have an original Siri Remote laying around that you still plan on using, you may be interested in getting an AirTag case for the remote. Etsy user PrintSpiredDesigns has capitalized on the opportunity with a new 3D printed, made-to-order AirTag case for the original Siri Remote. The remote slides into the...
airtag hacked

AirTag Successfully Hacked to Show Custom URL in Lost Mode

Monday May 10, 2021 1:52 am PDT by
The inevitable race to hack Apple's AirTag item tracker has reportedly been won by a German security researcher, who managed to break into the device's microcontroller and successfully modify its firmware. Yesss!!! After hours of trying (and bricking 2 AirTags) I managed to break into the microcontroller of the AirTag! 🥳🥳🥳/cc @colinoflynn @LennertWo pic.twitter.com/zGALc2S2Ph— stacksmashing ...
zoom app icon

Apple Gave Zoom Access to Special API to Use iPad Camera During Split View Multitasking

Sunday May 9, 2021 2:00 am PDT by
Zoom, a hallmark platform used by millions during the global health crisis, has been given access to a special iPadOS API that allows the app to use the iPad camera while the app is in use in Split View multitasking mode. This case of special treatment was first brought to attention by app developer Jeremy Provost, who, in a blog post, explains that Zoom uses a special API that allows the...
tracking disabled ios 14 5

Analytics Suggest 96% of Users Leave App Tracking Disabled in iOS 14.5

Friday May 7, 2021 1:51 am PDT by
An early look at an ongoing analysis of Apple's App Tracking Transparency suggests that the vast majority of iPhone users are leaving app tracking disabled since the feature went live on April 26 with the release of iOS 14.5. According to the latest data from analytics firm Flurry, just 4% of iPhone users in the U.S. have actively chosen to opt into app tracking after updating their device...
Top Stories 59 Feature

Top Stories: Epic Games vs. Apple, Hidden AirTag Mode, Apple Music Hi-Fi, Colorful MacBook Air?

Saturday May 8, 2021 6:00 am PDT by
While we wait for the newly introduced iMac, iPad Pro, and Apple TV models to launch later this month, this week saw the kickoff of the big Epic Games v. Apple trial, with lots of juicy tidbits coming out as the two sides make their arguments. This week also saw some rumors about a Hi-Fi tier for Apple Music, more biometric sensing capabilities for Apple Watch, and timing for the...
Apple 5G Modem Feature

Kuo: Apple-Designed 5G Modem May Debut in iPhones as Early as 2023

Sunday May 9, 2021 10:02 pm PDT by
Apple plans to adopt its own custom-designed 5G baseband chip starting with the 2023 iPhones, meaning it'll no longer need to rely on Qualcomm to supply the 5G cellular modem for the iPhone, Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in an investors note obtained by MacRumors. According to Kuo, Apple plans to include its own custom-designed 5G baseband chip starting with the launch of the 2023...
maxresdefault

Video: Make Your iPhone Last Longer With These Battery Preserving Tips

Monday May 10, 2021 1:23 pm PDT by
Maximizing battery life is something that many iPhone users deal with on a regular basis as we all want our iPhones to last as long as possible. Sometimes there are bugs in iOS that make the battery drain faster, and sometimes we just need to eke out as much as possible on a long day out and about. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. In our latest YouTube video, MacRumo...
m1 ipad pro chip

M1 iPad Pro Over 50% Faster Than Previous Generation in Early Benchmarks

Tuesday May 11, 2021 11:56 am PDT by
Last month, Apple introduced a new iPad Pro with the same M1 chip found in the latest Macs, and early benchmark results indicate that the M1 iPad Pro is over 50% faster than the previous-generation iPad Pro. Based on five legitimate Geekbench 5 results (here's the fifth) for the fifth-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro with the M1 chip, the device has average single-core and multi-core scores of...