Can Police Search a Phone without a Warrant After Death?

Gone are the days of the “dumb” phone era when the only information you stored were contacts, SMS messages, and call times. Today there’s a treasure trove of data in each person’s phone, some of it showing intimate details that one wouldn’t want to be released to the public.

We’ve seen police attempt to crack phones that belong to living suspects with little success, but what about dead people? There is a bit of precedent here, as police in Miami used a dead suspect’s finger to try and unlock his phone to search through it on April 20th, 2018. Although it may seem complicated, the legal territory here couldn’t be any less murky, and we’ll dive right in!

deathwarrant-gavel

Although I will often use US law in this example (since the case I mentioned happened in that country’s territory), it’s challenging to find significant outliers when it comes to the rights of dead persons. Most countries tend to agree on how they treat deceased individuals’ property or bodies. Therefore, when a crime occurs resulting in the death of a person, their body is an essential piece of the puzzle and usually comes into the possession of authorities attempting to investigate the crime. This means that funeral plans may be put off for a while.

deathwarrant-phone

If police investigate a crime that involved a death and the person who died had a phone on their person, it enters evidence like any other object. In most countries, it’s pretty much cut and dry: human rights apply to living persons. They have nothing to say about those who are dead, as they can no longer have agency at all.

So, from a legal standpoint, what the police did in Miami is perfectly fine. The way they proceeded, however, was a bit unorthodox.

Rather than taking the fingerprint at the scene of the crime, police went to the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home with the suspect’s phone to press the corpse’s finger against it. It bears mentioning that this was done some time after the suspect died. They managed to recover the phone only a day after the body was transferred out of state custody, making this awkward encounter kind of inevitable. As far as the letter of the law is concerned, they still didn’t break any rules.

If the phone were inside the suspect’s house, the police would have needed to obtain the consent of the person that now possesses that property (unless no one inherited it) or a warrant. If it were a rental property, they would need this from the landlord. In both cases, if the scene of the crime was in the suspect’s house, the police could just take the phone into evidence.

As far as the fingerprint is concerned, a dead person does not have corporal rights, so it’s fair game.

deathwarrant-sensor

The short answer to this question is “no.” Once a body loses its conductivity and warmth, it can no longer trigger a fingerprint sensor. For a smartphone to maintain its compact size, it uses something known as a capacitive scanner, which needs a certain amount of electromagnetic energy to work. There are tiny capacitors in your phone meant to detect even the slightest changes in electrical charge, which light up as soon as ridges from your fingertip touch them. For this to happen, you need to be alive.

The police officers who attempted to use a dead body’s fingertip to activate the phone might have been disappointed to see that their method didn’t work. But this doesn’t mean that a person’s fingerprint-locked phone cannot be unlocked after they die. By making a mold of the body’s fingerprint, authorities (who are very much alive) could still access the person’s phone by placing that mold over their fingers.

Although it’s highly unlikely that you will end up in the same situation as Linus Phillip — the suspect in the case we discussed — did, our lives are going to end at some point. Most of us have things we’d prefer to remain intimate, including sensitive information we wouldn’t want to get into the wrong hands. In those cases, I’d suggest using a slightly “retro” invention: a password. In some cases, this could be more secure even while you’re alive!

What do you think people should do to prepare for the worst with other pieces of technology? Tell us all about it in a comment!

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