The Fourth Amendment right of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” has been center stage in debates over technology that scarcely could have been imagined at the time it was written. See, e.g., Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018); United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). With less fanfare, however, the Fifth Amendment has emerged as another critical consideration in recent cases focused on the protection of information accessible only through biometric scans (such as fingerprint or facial recognition). In the latest example of this trend, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination prohibited the compelled use of biometric smartphone unlocking features, such as fingerprint, thumbprint, facial, or iris recognition, in In the Matter of the Search of a Residence in Oakland, California, No. 4-19-70053, 2019 WL 176937 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 10, 2019). Cases like this one read the right even more broadly than those dealing with the compelled production of passwords. Practitioners should monitor this ongoing judicial dialogue about how the Fifth Amendment should apply to issues newly arising in the information age.

The Northern District of California’s Fifth Amendment analysis in Oakland

In Oakland, the Government applied for a warrant authorizing investigators to compel any individual present at a residence connected to two extortion suspects to utilize biometric features to unlock digital devices found at the residence. Relying on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions directly addressing the Fourth Amendment, including Carpenter, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kandis A. Westmore ruled that law enforcement could not force suspects to use biometric features to unlock digital devices because using such a feature would be testimonial for purposes of the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. In addition, Judge Westmore ruled that the “foregone conclusion” exception did not apply. She thus denied the warrant application.

In her analysis of whether using biometric features would be testimonial, Judge Westmore was mindful of the fact that “technology is outpacing the law” in some areas. She noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s direction in Carpenter to take technological advances into account when addressing constitutional issues and noted that courts “have an obligation to safeguard constitutional rights and cannot permit those rights to be diminished merely due to the advancement of technology.” 
Continue Reading Recent rulings indicate Fifth Amendment may join Fourth Amendment as critical consideration in courts’ efforts to apply constitutional protections to smartphones and other new technology

On October 24, 2018, the Florida Court of Appeal for the Fourth District ruled that the state could not compel the production of a defendant’s iPhone passcode and iTunes password because doing so would violate the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. The ruling in G.A.Q.L. v. State of Florida is encouraging for privacy advocates but may set up a showdown at the Florida Supreme Court, as it conflicts with a 2016 ruling from the Florida Court of Appeal for the Second District in which the court ruled that compelled production of a passcode did not violate the Fifth Amendment. The two pair of decisions highlights the variety of ways courts can choose to apply long-standing legal principles to new technology – and the resulting lack of predictability for practitioners.

Would compelled passcode production violate the Fifth Amendment?

The issue in G.A.Q.L. arose after G.A.Q.L., a minor, crashed his vehicle while driving under the influence, resulting in the death of one of his passengers. Upon searching the vehicle, police found an iPhone 7 alleged to belong to the minor. After obtaining a warrant to search the phone, the police sought an order compelling the minor to provide the iPhone passcode and the password for an associated iTunes account because the phone couldn’t be searched before an update was installed. The police wanted to search the phone because a surviving passenger stated she had communicated with G.A.Q.L. on the day of the crash via text messages and Snapchat. In response to the police’s motion to compel, the minor argued that compelled disclosure of the iPhone passcode and iTunes password would violate the Fifth Amendment. The trial court disagreed and ordered the production, so G.A.Q.L. petitioned the Florida Court of Appeal for a writ of certiorari to quash the trial court’s order.

Continue Reading Florida Appeals Court rules Fifth Amendment bars compelled production of iPhone passcode, iTunes password