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Can Police Unlock Phone With Dead Man's Finger?

By Molly Zilli, Esq. | Last updated on

With advances in technology come new legal and ethical dilemmas. Animal cloning, space colonization, and DIY gene therapies come to mind. But there are also plenty of legal questions surrounding the use of your basic smartphone. For example, in a new twist, police officers in Florida attempted to unlock a cell phone using the dead man's finger. Did they need a warrant? Was it totally inappropriate? What kinds of rights does a dead person have?

Police Go to Funeral Home

Linus Phillip was killed on March 23 when he was pulled over for what officers said looked like illegally tinted windows on his rental car. The officers smelled marijuana, but before they could search the man, and while one cop was still partially inside the vehicle, Phillip jumped back in the car and attempted to drive away. The officer says he fired at Phillip in self-defense and then fell out of the car. Police found cocaine and marijuana in the car, but no weapons. Phillip, died at the scene.

As part of the investigations into the man's death and a separate drug probe, officers went to the funeral home where Phillip's body was being kept. There, they attempted to use the dead man's finger to unlock his phone, though it didn't work. The police say they didn't need a warrant, and Phillip's fiancée says she felt violated and disrespected.

Police Actions Illegal or Unethical?

Whether or not police need a warrant rests in part on your reasonable expectation of privacy. The Supreme Court has ruled that under the Fourth Amendment, people generally have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their bodies and their cell phones, among many other things. And normally, they would need a warrant or your consent to search your phone.

In this case and according to experts interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, officers did not need a warrant because a dead person can't own property or assert their Fourth Amendment rights. However, Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, says that it's possible for those rights to apply to whoever inherits the man's property, as they surely "have a vested interest in the remains of [the dead man's] body." And of course, whether or not the officers' attempted search of the phone using the dead man's finger was ethical and appropriate is another question.

Police officers have a very difficult job to do, and they don't always get it right. If you were detained or arrested and believe the cops illegally searched you, your car, or something similar, be sure to speak to an experienced defense attorney to properly assert your rights.

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