Cell-Phone Fingerprint Ruling: 5 Things You Should Know

By Brett Snider, Esq. on November 04, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

With fingerprint-reading technology now being implemented in more and more smartphones, rulings like the one last week really get under people's skin.

Last Tuesday, a Virginia judge ruled that police officers can force a suspect to unlock a smartphone using that phone's fingerprint scanner, reports The Wall Street Journal. This ruling has many privacy advocates worried that fingerprint and biometric tech on cell phones will become a loophole for police abuse.

Before you chuck your new phone in the trash, check out our five level-headed takeaways from this ruling:

1. As a General Rule, Cops Still Can't Search a Cell Phone Without a Warrant.

This Virginia ruling does not change the Supreme Court's ruling on cell phone searches: Police cannot automatically search your phone upon your arrest without a search warrant, with very few exceptions. Once they obtain a search warrant to get inside your phone, the Virginia ruling allows police to force you to unlock the phone with a fingerprint (if possible).

2. Police Already Take Your Fingerprints.

When a suspect is arrested and booked, fingerprinting is part of the routine booking procedure. You don't have a right to keep your fingerprints from the government, even if those fingerprints may implicate you in a crime. For the same reason, you may be compelled to unlock your cell phone using your fingerprints without violating your rights against self-incrimination.

3. Cops Can't Force You to Give Up Your Passcode.

If your phone is locked with a passcode or password, police cannot force you to give up that information. Your fingerprint isn't like a passcode, it's more like a very unique physical key, so police can still force you to give it up to unlock your phone.

4. Police Can Search Your Phone If You Let Them.

Police do not need a warrant to search your phone if you consent to let them search it. Even after you've been arrested and searched, you do not have to tell police your phone's passcode or allow them to search it.

5. Fingerprint Locks Have Backups.

The iPhone 5S, 6, and 6S have been outfitted with TouchID sensors that allow a user to unlock the phone with a simple fingerprint. However, even with TouchID enabled, these phones can be set to only unlock with a passcode (saving TouchID for things like App Store purchases) and to require a passcode after being left idle.

So don't freak out too much about this Virginia cell-phone fingerprint ruling. Your phones are pretty much as safe from police intrusion as they were before.

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