Can Police Force You to Unlock Your Phone?

Police officers cannot force people to unlock their cell phones if they are arrested. This procedure violates Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

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Self-Incrimination Protections

A person’s Fifth Amendment rights protect him/her from self-incrimination. This includes turning over protected passwords on cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices to police officers looking for evidence. If arrested for a crime, a person may not be forced by law enforcement to unlock electronic devices with personal passwords or biometric passwords that divulge personal information.

With advancements in technology, cell phone, tablet, and computer users are given heightened security for their devices. To prevent security breaches and hackers, the latest electronic devices permit users to lock and unlock devices and protect their passwords in numerous ways.

Personal Passwords

When obtaining evidence in a crime, the court can require alleged suspects to turn over physical evidence to law enforcement. However, if the evidence is held mentally, rather than physically, it does not have to be turned over. Under Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, electronic devices unlocked with personal passwords known only to the user do not have to be shared in court.

Biometric Passwords

Biometric passwords rely on a person’s physical features such as fingerprints, facial features, and retinal images to unlock an electronic device. Until recently, the court made a distinction between personal passwords committed to memory and biometric passwords that use physical features. Since fingerprints and facial recognition images are something a person has, rather than something a person knows, police officers have previously been permitted to unlock electronic devices with biometric passwords to obtain evidence.

The rights of an individual under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are protected in criminal cases. Recent rulings argue that personal passwords and biometric passwords should be given the same protection under the law. If these types of passwords are turned over to obtain evidence in a criminal case, a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizures, as well as Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination would be violated.

Depending on the district, court rulings vary on unlocking electronic devices with biometric passwords. Until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a clear ruling on this issue, electronic devices with biometric passwords may not be protected under Fifth Amendment rights. If arrested for a crime, a criminal defense lawyer can explain a defendant’s legal rights concerning personal passwords and biometric passwords in obtaining evidence.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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