District Judge John Coughenour of the U.S. District Court in Seattle agreed. In his ruling (PDF), the judge determined that the police looking at the phone at the time of the arrest and the FBI looking at it again after the fact are two separate issues. Police are allowed to conduct searches without search warrant under special circumstances, Coughenour wrote, and looking at the phone’s lock screen may have been permissible as it “took place either incident to a lawful arrest or as part of the police’s efforts to inventory the personal effects” of the person arrested. Coughenour was unable to determine how, specifically, the police acted, and he ordered clarification to see if their search of the phone fell within those boundaries. But where the police actions were unclear, the FBI’s were both crystal clear and counter to the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, Coughenour ruled. “Here, 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.” That qualifies as a “search” under the terms of the Fourth Amendment, he found, and since the FBI did not have a warrant for that search, it was unconstitutional.
Attorneys for the government argued that Sam should have had no expectation of privacy on his lock screen — that is, after all, what everyone who isn’t you is meant to see when they try to access the phone. Instead of determining whether the lock screen is private or not, though, Coughenour found that it doesn’t matter. “When the Government gains evidence by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area — as the FBI did here — it is ‘unnecessary to consider’ whether the government also violated the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy,” he wrote. Basically, he ruled, the FBI pushing the button on the phone to activate the lock screen qualified as a search, regardless of the lock screen’s nature.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.