Court: Police can use your fingerprint to search your phone

The police can get your fingerprint, but not your password, to unlock your smartphone, a Virginia judge ruled this week.

A password is constitutionally protected individual knowledge, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Steven Frucci ruled. But a fingerprint is similar to giving a DNA or handwriting sample, which the law allows, he said.

The question surfaced in the case of David Baust, who is charged with trying to strangle his girlfriend. Prosecutors argued Baust’s cellphone might contain recordings of a fight between the couple, but Baust’s attorney moved — and Frucci agreed — that the Fifth Amendment prohibited Baust from giving up his password.

The courts are slowly working through the different standards around smartphone searches.

This summer, the Supreme Court unanimously barred police from searching the cellphones of people they arrest without a warrant. The ruling parted with previous decisions allowing police to freely search the pockets of those in custody. The difference, the court said, was cellphones often contain “the privacies of life.”

Law enforcement officials have also been publicly complaining about new encryption measures for Apple and Android smart phones, arguing the protections would inhibit police investigations.

One of Apple’s smartphone encryption methods, Touch ID, uses a fingerprint to unlock the phone. Privacy advocates and Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenShould the Rob Porter outcome set the standard? Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees Sen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats MORE (D-Minn.) immediately raised concerns about the collection and use of unchangeable biometric data before any industry or government standards had developed.