A California police officer believes there is evidence on your cellphone that you have engaged in illegal activity. Can he or she demand that you unlock the phone and hand it over?

The immediate answer is no. However, our courts recognize that the interpretation of laws written decades or even centuries ago has not caught up with ever more sophisticated technology, including locked cellphones.

Legal search and seizure

An officer may request a search warrant from the court to seize your electronic devices. If the judge finds that there is probable cause to search your property, the seizure of your cellphone and the subsequent retrieval of data are likely to be legal.

Limits to search and seizure

In a recent case in California, authorities submitted such a request for a search warrant to the U.S. District Court, and the Court agreed that there was probable cause. The authorities also requested that the Court require anyone present at the time of the search to unlock digital devices using biometric features or fingerprints.  The Court refused, however, stating that this would violate the individuals’ Fifth Amendment rights, and denied the application for the search warrant.

Biometrics and passcodes

The Fifth Amendment protects people from self-incrimination: “No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” According to the Courts, forcing individuals to unlock their phones is equivalent to compelling them to provide testimonial communication that would incriminate them.

In the past, courts have ruled that individuals do not have to provide the passcode to their electronic devices. Authorities claimed this case was different because it involved biometrics rather than a passcode, but the District Court ruled that the biometric feature serves the same purpose.

Because court rulings on technology and Constitutional rights may change as cases go through the appellate process, this information should not be interpreted as legal advice.