Largo, Florida police detectives entered a funeral home in Clearwater and attempted to unlock the phone of a man killed by another officer at a traffic stop a month earlier using the deceased man’s hands, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Victoria Armstrong, the fiance of late Linus F. Phillip, told the paper she felt “so disrespected and violated” after police entered the funeral home she was present at and attempted to use Phillip’s corpse to unlock the device. While the police may not have been violating the law by doing so, Phillip’s family certainly felt the move was disrespectful:
Armstrong, 28, happened to be at Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater the day two detectives showed up with Phillip’s phone, she said. They were taken to Phillip’s corpse. Then, they tried to unlock the phone by holding the body’s hands up to the phone’s fingerprint sensor.
Lt. Randall Chaney said it was an unsuccessful attempt to access and preserve data on the phone to aid in the investigation into Phillip’s death and a separate inquiry into drugs that involved Phillip, 30. While Chaney said detectives didn’t think they’d need a warrant because there is no expectation of privacy after death – an opinion several legal experts affirmed – the actions didn’t sit right with Phillip’s family.
Chaney added that as far as he was aware, this was the first time the department has attempted to unlock a phone in this manner. It’s not clear from the Times report what kind of phone Phillip owned, but if it was an iPhone, the 48-hour window in which the device could be unlocked with a fingerprint alone would have long expired.
It’s unconstitutional for police to search cell phones without a warrant, and living criminal suspects can cite Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination if police demand to know the password to a phone. But courts have ruled the Fifth Amendment protections do not apply to devices with fingerprint-based security on the legal understanding that fingerprints are like other kinds of biometric indicators such as DNA or handwriting samples.
In any case, the dead have few legal rights, according to the Times. In Florida, there are few laws governing who may have access to a dead person in the care of a funeral home.
“The law has been most cruel, really unforgiving to a dead person,” Southampton Law School associate professor Remigius Nwabueze told the Times. “It provides no entitlement or legal rights after death to a deceased person.”
“Nobody even calling us from the facility to let us know detectives were coming there at all is very disturbing,” Armstrong added. “I’m very sceptical of all funeral homes now.”
With increasing amounts of personal data stored on mobile devices, US authorities have become particularly aggressive about seeking access to them. For over a decade, the FBI and Department of Justice have been publicly complaining about encryption and demanding tech companies design convenient backdoors to bypass their password security – though federal, state, and local police forces have been quietly buying devices designed to crack phone security without said backdoors at the same time.
Phillip’s family already does not trust the police account of his death, which states that he took off in his vehicle during a traffic stop, dragging a Largo officer who then opened fire.
According to the Times, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office and Largo Police are investigating the incident, but Armstrong says she wants to “see what happened. If they’re saying he tried to kill police, then I want to see that.”