Detectives in Largo, Florida attempted to use the fingerprints of a man killed in an officer-involved shooting in March to unlock his phone, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The man, Linus Phillip, was pulled over by Largo police for illegally tinted windows. The Tampa Bay Times reports officers Matthew Steiner and Prentice Ables noticed the smell of marijuana in Phillip’s car and attempted to detain him. During the arrest, Phillip managed to jump into the driver’s seat and attempted to drive away, dragging Steiner who was still partially in the vehicle. Steiner withdrew his weapon and fired in self-defense according to the Largo Police Department. Phillip was later pronounced dead at Largo Medical Center.
After his body was released from state custody, Phillip’s body was sent to Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater. Shortly after his body was released, two detectives went to the funeral home and unsuccessfully attempted to unlock Phillip’s phone by holding fingers from the corpse to the fingerprint sensor.
Lieutenant Randall Chaney of the Largo Police Department told the Tampa Bay Times that detectives were trying to access the phone to acquire evidence for two investigations: One involving Phillip’s shooting and one for separate drug charges. He also said that while,”We can’t remember having unlocked a phone in that fashion, either at the scene, the Medical Examiner’s office, or the funeral home,” the detectives did not feel they needed a warrant as the deceased have no right to privacy.
Although the actions of the Largo Police Department raises plenty of ethical questions, the legal implications are much more straightforward. A number of legal experts agree that privacy protections do not cover the deceased. Further, in 2014 a Virginia Circuit Court ruled using fingerprint authentication on your smartphone negates your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in Commonwealth of Virginia v. Baust.
While you may waive your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by using biometric factors like facial or fingerprint recognition to unlock your phone, the same cannot be said for passcodes. Since passcodes don’t have a physical aspect, the Virginia Circuit Court of Appeals ruled an individual cannot be compelled to provide it in an investigation. However, police departments can use devices such as GrayKey to brute force their way into your device.