FBI can’t use evidence from phone’s lock screen without warrant, Washington judge says

If your phone’s lock screen displays anything that might be used as evidence of a crime, the FBI needs to have a warrant before they can use it in court, according to a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle, Washington.

Judge John Coughenour ruled this week that while police can take a person’s phone at the time of their arrest and place it in the department’s search inventory, investigators cannot use the contents of the lock screen as evidence after the fact, according to court documents.

Joseph Sam was indicted and charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery and assault resulting in bodily injury after a Mountlake Terrace police officer arrested him in May 2019, court documents said. At the time of the arrest, the officer took Sam’s smartphone and placed it in the department’s search inventory, which is standard practice during an arrest, according to court documents.

“In their respective briefs, Mr. Sam and the Government treat the police’s and FBI’s examinations as legally indistinguishable. They are not,” court documents said.

The phone’s lock screen displayed the name “Streezy” under the time and date, court documents said. After police put the phone in the department’s search inventory, FBI investigators turned the phone on and took pictures of the lock screen to use as evidence against Sam in Feb. 2020, according to court documents.

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The judge ruled that the FBI doing so without a warrant is unconstitutional, court documents said.

“Here, the FBI physically intruded on Mr. Sam’s personal effect when the FBI powered on his phone to take a picture of the phone’s lock screen,” court documents said. “The FBI therefore ‘searched’ the phone within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. And because the FBI conducted the search without a warrant, the search was unconstitutional.”

Since the “search” of Sam’s phone was conducted without a warrant, the government cannot use photos of the phone’s lock screen against him in court, according to the judge’s ruling.

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