Attorney Marina Medvin was interviewed by ABC News about her opinion on the Constitutionality of forcing a defendant to provide his fingerprint and passcode ID for the purpose of unlocking his cell phone. Additional news commentary from a local NBC News channel quoted Ms. Medvin’s argument as:
Regardless of whether you unlock using the key of fingerprint, or the key of a numeric code, that is simply a lock; and unlocking it. The information beyond that lock – that is what is protected.
Ms. Medvin advised that she believes that under the 1966 Supreme Court case of Schmerber v. California, both the fingerprint and code are protected by the 5th Amendment.
Below is the relevant snippet from the case:
It is clear that the protection of the privilege reaches an accused’s communications, whatever form they might take, and the compulsion of responses which are also communications, for example, compliance with a subpoena to produce one’s papers. Boyd v. United States, 116 U. S. 616. On the other hand, both federal and state courts have usually held that it offers no protection against compulsion to submit to fingerprinting, photographing, or measurements, to write or speak for identification, to appear in court, to stand, to assume a stance, to walk, or to make a particular gesture. The distinction which has emerged, often expressed in different ways, is that the privilege is a bar against compelling “communications” or “testimony,” but that compulsion which makes a suspect or accused the source of “real or physical evidence” does not violate it.
Although we agree that this distinction is a helpful framework for analysis, we are not to be understood to agree with past applications in all instances. There will be many cases in which such a distinction is not readily drawn. Some tests seemingly directed to obtain “physical evidence,” for example, lie detector tests measuring changes in body function during interrogation, may actually be directed to eliciting responses which are essentially testimonial. To compel a person to submit to testing in which an effort will be made to determine his guilt or innocence on the basis of physiological responses, whether willed or not, is to evoke the spirit and history of the Fifth Amendment. Such situations call to mind the principle that the protection of the privilege “is as broad as the mischief against which it seeks to guard,” Counselman v. Hitchcock, 142 U. S. 547, 562.
In a recent 2014 ruling in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court established the Constitutionally important value of a modern day smart phone:
… The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers…
The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information — an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video — that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.
Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” Boyd, supra, at 630, 6 S.Ct. 524. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.