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Minnesota Supreme Court Says Unlocking A Phone With A Fingerprint Isn't A Fifth Amendment Issue

Published: January 31, 2018
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Source: Tech Dirt

Image Source: Andri Koolme (flickr CC BY 2.0)

When it comes to the Fifth Amendment, you're better off with a password or PIN securing your device, rather than your fingerprint. Cellphone manufacturers introduced fingerprint readers in an effort to protect users from thieves or other unauthorized access. But it does nothing at all to prevent law enforcement from using their fingerprints to unlock seized devices.

The US Supreme Court hasn't seen a case involving compelled production of fingerprints land on its desk yet and there's very little in the way of federal court decisions to provide guidance. What we have to work with is scattered state court decisions and the implicit understanding that no matter how judges rule, a refusal to turn over a fingerprint or a password is little more than a way to add years to an eventual sentence.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued the final word on fingerprints and the Fifth Amendment for state residents. In upholding the appeals court ruling, the Supreme Court says a fingerprint isn't testimonial, even if it results in the production of evidence used against the defendant. (h/t

From the ruling [PDF]:

Although the Supreme Court’s distinction between the testimonial act of producing documents as evidence and the nontestimonial act of producing the body as evidence is helpful to our analysis, the act here—providing the police a fingerprint to unlock a cellphone—does not fit neatly into either category. Unlike the acts of standing in a lineup or providing a blood, voice, or handwriting sample, providing a fingerprint to unlock a cellphone both exhibits the body (the fingerprint) and produces documents (the contents of the cellphone). Providing a fingerprint gives the government access to the phone’s contents that it did not already have, and the act of unlocking the cellphone communicates some degree of possession, control, and authentication of the cellphone’s contents. See Hubbell, 530 U.S. at 36. But producing a fingerprint to unlock a phone, unlike the act of producing documents, is a display of the physical characteristics of the body, not of the mind, to the police. See Schmerber, 384 U.S. at 763.

Because we conclude that producing a fingerprint is more like exhibiting the body than producing documents, we hold that providing a fingerprint to unlock a cellphone is not a testimonial communication under the Fifth Amendment.

The ruling notes the defendant did try to holdout on this, sticking to his Fifth Amendment arguments. But when the trial court gives you only unpalatable options, defendants tend to give prosecutors what they want.

The district court concluded that compelling Diamond’s fingerprint would not violate his Fifth Amendment privilege because “[c]ompelling the production of [Diamond’s] fingerprint or thumbprint would not call upon the use of [his] mind. It is more akin to providing a key to a lockbox.” Accordingly, it ordered Diamond to “provide a fingerprint or thumbprint as deemed necessary by the Chaska Police Department to unlock his seized cell phone.”

Diamond continued to object to providing the necessary fingerprint for unlocking the phone. Nevertheless, he finally unlocked the cellphone with his fingerprint in court after being held in civil contempt and warned of the possibility and consequences of criminal contempt.

This is an aspect never discussed by the FBI and others engaged in the war on encryption. Many, many people can be motivated to unlock devices when faced with the prospect of indefinite imprisonment on contempt charges. It's something that should work in all but the most extreme criminal cases where the potential imprisonment might be as close to indefinite as humanly possible.


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