Battle over police access to cellphone passwords heating up

Americans’ cellphones and other digital devices contain a treasure trove of personal information, including private messages, phone call logs and browsing histories. Most of this data is mundane, but some of it could be incriminating if a person is being investigated for a crime. As a result, law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and across the U.S. are pushing to gain access to certain people’s cellphones, making privacy advocates nervous.

So far, courts have ruled that law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before searching someone’s cellphone. However, there is still much debate about whether police can compel people to use their passcode, fingerprint or face to unlock their devices. To make matters even more complicated, the rules differ depending on the state someone lives in, and there are currently multiple court cases making their way through state legal systems.

For instance, police in Indiana are attempting to force a woman to hand over her cellphone passcode so that officers can substantiate a harassment claim against her. However, she has resisted, and her case has reached the Indiana Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a New Jersey sheriff’s deputy charged with tipping off drug dealers has refused to unlock his cellphone. His case is headed to the state Supreme Court. In addition, a similar case is winding its way through the Pennsylvania court system. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors claim that blocking access to defendants’ cellphones will unreasonably hinder criminal investigations, but privacy advocates insist that forcing people to unlock their phones is unconstitutional.

Criminal charges can lead to a variety of harsh outcomes, including incarceration and fines. Individuals facing such charges may wish to contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The attorney may be able to protect the defendant’s constitutional rights and help develop a plausible defense against the charges, which might get the charges dismissed or be used to set up plea deal negotiations.