Court backs ruling that man give fingerprint to unlock phone

Published 10:18 am Wednesday, January 18, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a judge’s order requiring a man to provide a fingerprint to unlock his cellphone was constitutional, a finding that is in line with similar rulings across the U.S.

The decision comes in the case of Matthew Diamond, who wanted his burglary and theft convictions overturned in connection with a 2014 robbery in Chaska, a Minneapolis suburb.

Diamond’s attorney argued that the district court violated Diamond’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by ordering him to provide his fingerprint to access information on his phone. Police found incriminating evidence on the cellphone after it was unlocked.

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This was the first time the Minnesota Court of Appeals has dealt with this issue, but it has come up in other states and federal courts.

In deciding this case, the appeals court examined whether the act of providing a fingerprint to unlock a cellphone is “testimonial communication.” The judges found that providing a fingerprint is not the same as forcing a defendant to testify against himself. They found it was also not the same as asking a defendant to provide information to decrypt a computer.

“By being ordered to produce his fingerprint … Diamond was not required to disclose any knowledge he might have or to speak his guilt,” the appeals court found.

“Instead, the task that Diamond was compelled to perform — to provide his fingerprint — is no more testimonial than furnishing a blood sample, providing handwriting or voice exemplars, standing in a lineup, or wearing particular clothing,” the judges ruled.

The court noted that it was making no opinion on whether compelling a defendant to provide a cellphone password would violate the Fifth Amendment.

Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said cases nationwide have fallen into two camps: those dealing with thumbprint-protected phones and those dealing with passcode protection.

He said courts have found that compelling a fingerprint does not violate the Fifth Amendment, but many have ruled that compelling someone to provide a passcode does — because a passcode is information stored in one’s mind. Rumold said the means of protecting a phone shouldn’t matter.

“(Cellphones) are basically this window into people’s mind,” he said. “I think the Fifth Amendment should evolve to protect it outright.”