Arizona Capitol

Arizona Bill Would Require a Warrant for Police to Search Phone Safeguarded by Fingerprint

Arizona lawmakers may prevent police from forcing someone to unlock their phone with a fingerprint without a warrant.

A recent court case in Virginia brought up the possibility that there are situations in which police could force someone to unlock their phone with a fingerprint, like with Apple's TouchID, but would not be able to force someone to give up a passcode to the phone.

The Arizona Senate yesterday voted unanimously to require a search warrant in order for police to compel someone to unlock any electronic device with a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint.

See also: -Your Arizona Driver's License Could Be Stored Someday on Your Smartphone

Senate Bill 1195's sponsor, Republican Senator Jeff Dial, told New Times the bill was an effort to make sure Arizona law was keeping pace with the state of technology, and to make sure that constitutional protections are ensured.

Despite the bipartisan support on the bill, Dial's original bill was amended to add that someone could be compelled to unlock their phone under "exigent circumstances."

The bill still would need to be passed by the House before it's given to the governor for his approval.

However, based on one analysis of the Virginia ruling, the use of this proposed Arizona law may only come under rare circumstances. Here's an explanation of what that ruling means from attorney and writer Brett Snider:

The Supreme Court ruled in the late 1980s that there's a difference between being forced to give up a key to a locked box versus giving up a combination or passcode to a safe. Courts like [Virginia] Judge Frucci's have taken this ruling to heart, essentially finding that if a phone can be unlocked with an arrestee's fingerprint, it's like finding a key and a lockbox on a suspect.

This Virginia ruling does not mean that police can now search a fingerprint-unlockable smartphone without a warrant; the Supreme Court has said a warrant is typically required. However, where a suspect may not have been forced to give up his or her passcode, officers with a search warrant for a defendant's phone may force him or her to unlock the phone with a fingerprint.

So in that last example, a warrant would be needed specifically for the "biometric identifier." However, it still sounds like you're better-protected with the passcode.

For what it's worth, Wired magazine predicted this predicament back in 2013.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley