According to published reports, police in Largo, Florida, USA, went to the funeral home housing the body of Linus Phillip, and attempted to unlock Phillip’s phone by holding his corpse’s finger to the device’s fingerprint reader.
The thirty-year-old Philip was killed by a Largo police officer last month after allegedly attempting to evade a police search by driving away from the officers involved. A police representative stated that the unlocking attempt was made in order to preserve data on the phone in an effort to aid in law enforcement’s investigations into both the shooting as well as into the drug-related inquiry for which police originally wanted to search Philip. Detectives believed that they did not need to obtain a warrant in order to unlock and search the device, the representative explained, because dead people do not have expectations of privacy, and, hence, do not enjoy Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches.
While some legal experts have stated that the police were correct in their assertion, law enforcement’s actions in this case certainly seem to be at least ethically questionable, if not worse. While the deceased individual may have no expectation of privacy, both his or her heirs and we as a society do have expectations that peoples’ remains will be treated with respect, and that certain levels of privacy will continue to be accorded even if a departed individual no longer has feelings or emotions. Also, one could reasonably argue that a late person’s fingerprint information and phone should be considered the property of that person’s heirs, who certainly may have Constitutional rights protecting their assets from searches without a warrant.
Furthermore, granting police greater search rights if they first kill a person whom they seek to search creates an unacceptable moral hazard; we should never incentivize law enforcement to err on the side of taking a life.
Technology has created all sorts of new legal and ethical questions. Death-related issues – such as what happens to the electronic assets of people when they pass away, should heirs be given access to the private chat data of deceased people or should records of those conversations be destroyed, and who has the right to unlock a phone using a dead person’s fingerprints, are all real issues that need to be discussed and addressed. Ideally, these quandaries should be remedied with legislation that delivers uniform, widely accepted, and easy-to-comprehend standards, so that living people can plan appropriately for when they are gone; enacting standard, consistent approaches would help our society avoid the legal and ethical quagmires that continue to plague us in their absence.