U.S. Court: Law Enforcement Needs Search Warrant to Check Lock Screen

Smartphones are not only a rich treasure trove of marketers, but also a rich treasure trove of law enforcement,media reported. Police and federal investigators like to have access to all personal information that may be helpful during the investigation. A judge ruled that under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and all provisions of its case law, police generally need search warrants to search people’s phones — which includes looking only at their locked screens.

U.S. Court: Law Enforcement Needs Search Warrant to Check Lock Screen


Often, when the topic of phone search in court appears, it is often related to the unlocking of the phone. In general, courts say law enforcement officials can force the use of a suspect’s body, such as a fingerprint or face, to unlock a phone, but they cannot force them to share information such as passwords. In the recent case, however, the FBI was unable to unlock the phone, instead looking at the phone’s lock screen for evidence.

A man from Washington state was arrested in May 2019 and charged with robbery and assault. It is understood that the suspect Joseph Sam was using a Motorola smartphone, as to the exact model has not been disclosed. According to court documents, when the suspect was arrested, a police officer at the scene pressed the power key and turned on the phone’s lock screen, but it did not say that any of the officers present tried to unlock the phone or let the suspect unlock the phone at the time.

In February 2020, the FBI opened the phone and took a picture of the phone’s lock screen, which showed the name Streezy. To this end, Sam’s lawyer suing a motion that the evidence should not be sought without a search warrant and that they should be banned.

District Judge John Coughenour of the Seattle District Court agreed. In his ruling, the judge found that the police looking at the cell phone at the time of the arrest and the FBI’s re-viewing of the cell phone after the arrest were two separate issues. Coughenour wrote in the filing that in exceptional cases, police can search without a search warrant, and viewing the phone’s lock screen may be allowed because it took place in a legitimate arrest.

Coughenour, however, was unable to determine exactly how the police acted, and ordered a request for clarification to determine whether their search for the phone was lawful. But he ruled that when the FBI’s actions were unclear, it was found to be in conflict with The Fourth Amendment’s rights. “Here, when the FBI opened Mr. Sam’s phone and took a picture of the phone’s lock screen, the bureau violated his personal belongings. Coughenour found that this was a “search” under the Fourth Amendment and unconstitutional because the FBI did not have a warrant.

But U.S. government lawyers say Sam shouldn’t expect his phone lock screen to have a privacy right. Coughenour didn’t decide whether the lock screen was private, but pointed out that it didn’t matter. “When the government obtains evidence through physical violations of the Constitutional Protection Zone — as the FBI has done here — there is no need to consider whether the government also violated the defendant’s reasonable expectations of privacy,” he wrote. “