Court: Police can force fingerprint to access smartphone

A Minnesota Appeals Court ruling is getting national attention this week after it ruled that it's constitutional for police to compel someone to provide a fingerprint to get access to a smartphone.

Although the decision involved a defendant in a burglary and theft case, one attorney said it could impact even those who’ve never committed a crime.

Just a decade ago, a case and a ruling over whether your fingerprints could open a cell phone would have been unthinkable. And, the technology is still so new that this ruling is one of the first in the country.

“That’s what happens, you have new technologies, and the courts react to those new technologies,” Attorney Joe Tamburino said.

Tamburino said that so far, courts have sided with police.

“That putting your fingerprint on the cell phone in order to open up the cell phone is not testimonial, which means it's not a violation of the 5th amendment, the right against self-incrimination,” he said.

The case dates back to 2014 when the Chaska police department wanted to search Matthew Diamond's cell phone for evidence in a burglary and theft case.

Diamond wanted the convictions thrown out, in part because the warrant compelling him to produce a fingerprint to open the phone was unconstitutional. But, the appeals court disagreed, saying "by being ordered to produce his fingerprint....diamond was not required to disclose any knowledge he might have or to speak his guilt."

Tamburino said the ruling could have wider implications for those who haven’t even been involved in a crime.

“Say all of a sudden, somebody's arrested two blocks away and they use their cell phone in the crime. And your phone number is on their phone, they're going to want to see what's on your phone, even if you had absolutely nothing to do with it,” he said.

While police can obtain a warrant to get your fingerprints, Tamburino said courts have ruled they cannot compel you to produce a passcode to unlock your phone.

“I just think it's ironic that we start out by using a passcode, meaning numeric digits, and the technology, the phone companies say it's more private and better and if you use a fingerprint, but really legally it's not. Go back to the passcode,” he said.

Tamburino said if police ask, you don't have to turn over your phone without a warrant unless you want to.

He expects higher courts to weigh in on this to help settle the issue, but it's not likely the finding will change.