Major advances in technology like cell phones and drones can often leave law enforcement, lawmakers, and the judiciary struggling to catch up. Most recently, courts and legislative bodies throughout the U.S. have debated the following: Can police officers force civilians to unlock or otherwise grant access to their cell phones?
Not necessarily, says one Florida appeals court. However, this recent decision in a criminal defendant's favor conflicts with another Florida appellate decision that has sided with law enforcement on this complex and controversial issue.
When Can Law Enforcement Seek a Phone Passcode?
The analysis of this issue hinges on two constitutional provisions: the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment's protection against compelled self-incrimination.
In State v. Matthew Pollard, police asked a judge to force the defendant (who was facing robbery charges) to turn over his phone passcode. The search warrant presented to this judge sought everything from text messages to social media posts to photos of drugs, money, and firearms. The trial judge granted this warrant, citing a 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling in the State's favor.
But the 1st District Court of Appeal reversed this ruling, following an earlier 4th District holding that, unless the state could describe the information it wanted with reasonable particularity, it wasn't entitled to go on a "fishing expedition" for potentially incriminating information in the defendant's phone.
This doesn't mean that law enforcement officers are never permitted to force a defendant to turn over his or her passcode. However, before asking for a search warrant, officers will need to be able to specifically describe what they're looking for, why they need it, and why they believe the defendant's cell phone is the only way for them to access the information they're seeking.
What's Next in This Area of Law?
As the 1st District Court of Appeal's recent decision shows, there's nothing close to a consensus on this issue, even within courts operating in the same state under the same laws. It seems likely that this issue will soon be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
And while a SCOTUS ruling won't necessarily impact the results of criminal cases that have already been decided, handing down a decision that either permits or prohibits law enforcement from obtaining a search warrant to access suspects' phones could significantly change the way cases are investigated.