Minn. Supreme Court upholds order to unlock phone with fingerprint as lawful

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ST PAUL, Minn.—The Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld a lower court decision allowing the government to lawfully order someone to unlock their cellphone.

While touching on the question of how the law strives to keep up with technology, the case of the State v. Matthew Diamond largely revolved around constitutional protections against self-incrimination, or — as the Fifth Amendment puts it — being compelled to bear witness against oneself.

"Because the compelled act here — providing a fingerprint — elicited only physical evidence from Diamond's body and did not reveal the contents of his mind, no violation of the Fifth Amendment privilege occurred," the higher court wrote in its Jan. 17 decision.

In 2015, a Carver County jury convicted Matthew Vaughn Diamond of burglary, theft and damaging property. Part of what the jury relied on for its decision was damning evidence found on Diamond's phone.

During the 2014 burglary investigation, Diamond had been jailed on an unrelated case, and his cellphone stored in a property room. The Chaska police detective investigating the burglary obtained a search warrant for the phone but found it to be encrypted with fingerprint access technology.

The state issued an order to compel Diamond to give a fingerprint. Diamond's attorney initially argued he shouldn't have to, on Fifth Amendment grounds.

But a district court ruled there was probable cause to support the state order, and Diamond — under threat of being found in contempt — gave his fingerprint.

It's the phrasing of that order, and Diamond's reaction to it, that was the primary focus of attorneys arguing both sides of the case before the Supreme Court in September.

The order stated Diamond had to "provide a fingerprint or thumbprint as deemed necessary by Chaska police."

When confronted with the order, according to evidence in the case, Diamond then asked officers, "Which finger do you want?"

"The one that opens it," an investigator replied.

State public defender Steven Russett argued before the Supreme Court in September that if the order had simply told Diamond to give a fingerprint, then there would've been no Fifth Amendment violation — and no case.

But because his client was compelled to give information about which finger unlocked the phone, he was therefore admitting the phone was his and he had access to it, Russett argued.

The Supreme Court noted that during Diamond's jury trial, the district court prohibited prosecutors from introducing evidence that Diamond had unlocked the phone with his fingerprint.

They further wrote that Diamond "did not need to self-select the finger that unlocked the phone. He did not even need to be conscious. Diamond could have provided all of his fingerprints to the police by making his hands available to them, and the police could have used each finger to try to unlock the cellphone."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service