Police Officers Use Dead Man's Finger To Unlock His Mobile Phone

“Nobody even calling us from the facility to let us know detectives were coming there at all is very disturbing. I’m very skeptical of all funeral homes now.”

Police authorities in Largo, Florida, arrived at a funeral home and reportedly attempted to use a dead man’s finger to unlock his mobile phone.

Linus Phillip, 30, was shot dead in March 2018 by a Largo police officer after he allegedly tried to escape before the officer could search him. Now, as part of the investigation of the police shooting and a separate drug related case, authorities wanted to access and preserve data that was present on his mobile phone.

Two detectives arrived at Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home and asked for Phillip’s body. They were then taken to Phillip’s corpse where they held his hand and tried to place his finger on the mobile phone’s fingerprint censor. However, they were unable to unlock the device.

Victoria Armstrong, Phillip’s fiancé, said she felt disrespected and violated by the incident.

“Nobody even calling us from the facility to let us know detectives were coming there at all is very disturbing. I’m very skeptical of all funeral homes now,” she said.

If police try to search mobile phone of a living person, Fifth Amendment protections can be cited, as it is unconstitutional to do so. However, in 2014, a Virginia judge ruled the protections don’t apply to fingerprints and police can force a suspect to unlock a fingerprint censor.

According to legal experts, the action by the police authority was not illegal.

“The law has been most cruel, really unforgiving to a dead person. It provides no entitlement or legal rights after death to a deceased person,” said Southampton Law School associate professor Remigius Nwabueze.

Police authorities have been trying to consider ways they can access personal data on mobile phones of suspects. In the effort, they have also acquired iPhone cracking tools and have asked tech companies to design ways the data can be accessed.

The action by the police authorities sparked a debate and people argued there are other possible ways the phone could be unlocked that the authorities simply overlooked.

Digital companies, such as Cellebrite or GrayShift, have the ability to access data form a locked device and the police department could easily reach out to them instead of going to the funeral home.

Unfortunately, the practice isn’t new. A recent report indicated U.S. law enforcement agencies are using fingerprints of dead people to get past the biometric safeguards to facilitate them in their investigations.

The first known case of authorities using deceased fingerprints was reported in 2016, when F.B.I. found itself unable to unlock an iPhone retrieved from Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a slain Somali refugee shot dead by police in Ohio State University while he attempted to stab people with butcher’s knife. 

To get a better understanding of Artan’s motives, an FBI agent put the attacker’s bloodied body index’s finger on his protected iPhone to gain access but failed.

Spotlight, Banner: Reuters, Fabrizio Bensch

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