Amidst the variety of fourth amendment and online privacy and protection issues that rapid advances in technology have raised over the past decades, it appears that Florida police have just given us something truly unprecedented and disturbing.
According to the AP, "Florida authorities went to a funeral home and used a dead man’s finger to try to unlock his cellphone as part of their investigation."
While it's easy to imagine that detectives or FBI agents have likely quietly crossed this line before with no one looking while working murder or kidnap cases, this is the perhaps the first time police have entered a funeral home with no warrant and as family grieved in order access the body in an attempt to unlock the deceased's iPhone.
It also appears this was done without notification or approval of family members - simply put, detectives entered the funeral home and simply did it, though they still weren't able to successfully unlock the phone.
The AP describes the circumstances as follows:
Thirty-year-old Linus Phillip was killed by a Largo police officer last month after authorities say he tried to drive away before an officer could search him.
At the funeral home, two detectives held the man’s hands up to the phone’s fingerprint sensor but could not unlock it.
Phillip’s fiancee Victoria Armstrong says she felt violated and disrespected.
Phillip's fiancé , Victoria Armstrong, who happened to be at the funeral home when two detectives showed up with the deceased suspect's iPhone, told the Tampa Bay Times, "I just felt so disrespected and violated." She further told a local ABC News affiliate, "So they are allowed to pull him out of the refrigerator and use a dead mans finger to get to his phone. Its disgusting."
Further disturbing is the fact that the series of events that led Linus Phillip's death began when police sought to pull him over and search him merely for having illegally tinted windows.
Police say that they smelled marijuana upon stopping him at a gas station parking lot in Largo, but when he allegedly tried to drive off, an officer was dragged alongside the vehicle as he had tried to apprehend Phillips, but the incident came to a quick ending when the officer fatally shot Phillips in self defense.
Details have been slow to come out as the March 23rd Largo police shooting of Phillips, a black man, evoked controversy from the start; however, an avalanche of new information emerged after gas station security camera footage was made available to the public last week.
Though the family first publicly accused the police of forcibly gaining access to the body late last month, it appears that this allegation has only recently been confirmed and is gaining national attention.
The family hired attorney John Trevena - who had been friends with Phillips - to investigate the shooting death as well as inquire into the bizarre attempt by police to enter the funeral home in order to open the cellphone.
In late March, Trevena provided details to local Tampa newspapers:
Once Mr. Phillip died, he was taken to the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s Office. After his body was released to the family, it was taken to Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater. After it had been there a short time, two Largo police detectives came to the funeral home because they were trying to get into Mr. Phillip’s cell phone. Trevena said they used the dead man’s hand to press against the phone to see if his fingerprint would open it.
“It was illegal. It was immoral. It was wrong,” Trevena said. Once the body had been released, he said, the police had no right to touch it. If they needed evidence, they should have gotten a warrant.
Largo police said they needed to access the phone in relation to another ongoing drug case involving 30-year old Philips, but it's hard to imagine why they would need to pursue the case using such invasive tactics if the main suspect is deceased.
The Tampa Bay Times cited police justification for the funeral home, who said through a spokesman for the department, "detectives didn’t think they’d need a warrant because there is no expectation of privacy after death."
No doubt a huge lawsuit against the Largo police department will be soon to follow the official police investigation.