In a first for a federal case, a Los Angeles court has issued a search warrant to the FBI forcing a girlfriend of an Armenian gang member to use Touch ID to unlock an iPhone, as it was believed her fingerprint was registered to the device and would provide access to data that could help an ongoing investigation into the gang member move forward.
The search warrant would force the woman – Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan (who was arrested due to charges of identity theft and had previous strings of various criminal convictions) – to bypass her iPhone’s biometric security using Apple’s Touch ID system.
Police recovered Bkhchadzhyan’s smartphone at the residence of her boyfriend, Sevak Mesrobian, known to be the member of a local gang, so it’s unclear whether the contents of the device were sought after due to Bkhchadzhyan’s crimes or her proximity to Mesrobian’s gang.
According to jail records, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Rosenberg signed the Touch ID-related search warrant about 45 minutes after Bkhchadzhyan was taken into custody on February 25. By the afternoon of her arrest, the suspect pleaded no contest to the charges of identity theft and gave the court her fingerprint to unlock the iPhone.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that authorities can obtain a search warrant for mobile phones and can force people in custody to hand over physical evidence including fingerprints without a judge order, legal experts say this case is different. Their argument is that forcing a person to use their fingerprints to unlock an iPhone could be a form of self-incrimination, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.