Minnesota Courts rule that suspects must provide fingerprint to unlock phones

January 19, 2017 - 

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a judge’s order instructing a man to submit his fingerprint in order to unlock his smartphone was constitutional, a move that is consistent with similar rulings across the country according to a report by TwinCities.com.

The decision relates to a case involving a Minnesota man who attempted to have his burglary and theft convictions repealed in connection to a 2014 robbery in Chaska.

The attorney for Matthew Diamond asserted that the district court infringed on his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by forcing him to submit his fingerprint to gain to his smartphone.

Soon after the ruling, police unlocked his phone to discover evidence of Diamond’s wrongdoing.

This is the first instance that the Minnesota Court of Appeals has been faced with the issue of ordering a suspect to submit his biometrics to unlock a mobile device, although it has occurred in other states and federal courts.

In October 2014, a Virginia judge ruled that a criminal defendant can be forced to provide authorities their fingerprint to allow police to open and search their cellphone.

The appeals court examined whether the act of providing a fingerprint to unlock a cellphone is “testimonial communication”, and found that providing a fingerprint is not equivalent to compelling a defendant to testify against himself.

The judges added that it was also not the same as ordering a defendant to provide information to decrypt a computer.

“By being ordered to produce his fingerprint … Diamond was not required to disclose any knowledge he might have or to speak his guilt,” the appeals court found. “Instead, the task that Diamond was compelled to perform — to provide his fingerprint — is no more testimonial than furnishing a blood sample, providing handwriting or voice exemplars, standing in a lineup, or wearing particular clothing.”

The court also stressed that it was not taking a stance on whether ordering a defendant to submit a cellphone password would infringe on the Fifth Amendment.

Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that these kinds of cases either involve thumbprint-protected phones or passcode protection.

He added that courts have ruled that ordering an individual to submit a fingerprint does not violate the Fifth Amendment. In contrast, many courts have ruled that forcing someone to provide a password does violate privacy rights because this information is actually stored in a person’s mind.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.