This week, a judge made an interesting ruling that could have long-term effects on how law enforcement officials can search your smartphone. The judge essentially ruled that a lock screen search — i.e., powering on your device and looking at what’s on the lock screen — constitutes a full search of the device. As such, that would require a warrant.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can yell out “that’s unconstitutional” if a police officer glances at your phone’s display. This ruling is simply clarifying that if a law enforcement official needs a warrant to search through your phone then it also needs a warrant to gather information from a lock screen search, considering that is also a search of your phone.
One could, of course, try to argue that the lock screen is “public” information since there’s no protection: anyone can hit the power button and look at it. This judge, though, doesn’t see it that way, which means more protection for you.
Keep in mind, though, that this lock screen search limitation won’t apply to all scenarios. For example, police officers performing an arrest would be able to look at your lock screen and not violate your Fourth Amendment rights, since an active arrest is very different than a federal investigation. In this specific case, though, the FBI accessed the lock screen of a suspect’s phone well after the arrest had been made, which the judge says did violate his Fourth Amendment rights.
Finally, it should also be clarified that this doesn’t mean that all federal investigations will need a warrant for a lock screen search. This judge’s ruling simply sets a precedent and a good legal team can now reference it to defend their clients if that client has been in a similar situation.
Regardless, though, it’s always nice to see a judge falling on the side of privacy and security, rather than the other side of the fence.