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Can the authorities force you to unlock your phone?

On Behalf of | Mar 28, 2021 | Criminal law

More and more, it seems like cellular phones are a vital part of people’s lives. Most of us conduct a great deal of communication, business, leisure activities and hobbies online.

Naturally, if you’re arrested on suspicion of certain types of crimes, whether it’s a white-collar offense or drug distribution, the authorities may be eager to get a peek at your phone’s data. You’re probably just as eager to keep them out of your device.

So who wins? The answer is a bit complicated

If the authority in question happens to be a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent and you’re at the airport, they have broader abilities than regular police officers and law enforcement agents.

They can force you to open your phone if it’s locked with biometrics (fingerprint or facial recognition) as a matter of national security. They can also confiscate your phone if they so choose.

Until recently, local authorities and federal agents were able to force suspects to unlock their phones using biometrics, but they could not compel someone to turn over another type of passcode (like a numerical lock). Thanks to a ruling in 2019 by a Northern California judge, that is no longer the case.

The judge essentially ruled that the authorities don’t have the right to force anybody to unlock their phones — whether the passcode is biometric or not. Instead, the authorities are expected to go through traditional means of gathering evidence, like a warrant or subpoena for the data.

Don’t expect the police to play fair

Just the same, the police may try to pressure you into “voluntarily” unlocking your phone before or after an arrest. The wise move to make is to call an attorney immediately and refuse to answer any questions(or unlock your devices until your legal representative arrives.