Cops go into funeral home, attempt to unlock phone with dead man's fingerprint

Florida police entered a funeral home and attempted to unlock an iPhone using the dead man's fingerprint.

Maybe Florida cops wanted to avoid spending money on the likes of GrayKey or Cellebrite to unlock an iPhone. Or maybe Largo detectives just saw nothing wrong with going into a funeral home and pressing a deceased man’s finger against his iPhone’s fingerprint sensor.

Regardless, the Tampa Bay Times reports Largo police unsuccessfully attempted to  access and preserve data on the phone to aid in the investigation” into Linus F. Phillip’s “death and a separate inquiry into drugs that involved Phillip.”

Phillip had been shot and killed by a Largo cop during a traffic stop. The attorney for the man’s family claims what the detectives did was illegal, yet others claim it was legal but ethically wrong.

While Chaney said detectives didn’t think they’d need a warrant because there is no expectation of privacy after death — an opinion several legal experts affirmed — the actions didn’t sit right with Phillip’s family.

Victoria Armstrong, Phillip’s fiancé, was at the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater, Florida, when two detectives showed up and attempted to use his corpse to unlock his phone. Even if the cops can’t be legally accused of violating a dead man’s Fourth Amendment rights, their actions left her feeling “disrespected and violated.”

“While the deceased person doesn’t have a vested interest in the remains of their body, the family sure does, so it really doesn’t pass the smell test,” Charles Rose, director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson University College of Law, told the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s a ghoulish component to it that’s troubling to most people.”

Had the police tried this while Phillip’s body was still in state custody, that might have been different, but John Trevena, the attorney representing Phillip’s family, claimed the officers “improperly accessed” his phone “by using his fingerprint after his body had already been taken to a funeral home.”

Trevena told Fox13, “[Police] brought [his] cell phone over — an iPhone — and used his fingers in an attempt to try to open up the iPhone using the fingerprint press. That’s disgusting beyond words. It’s also illegal and immoral. There’s no legal basis for them to be able to do that, and they should have gotten a warrant and certainly shouldn’t be doing this after the body had been released to the funeral home.”

How Phillip died

Let’s rewind a bit and look at how Phillip died. He’d been pulled over by the cops due to his rental car having illegally tinted windows. The 30-year-old man pulled over into the parking lot of a Wawa gas station.

Fox13 reported that Officers Matthew Steiner and Prentice Ables “tried to detain Phillip because they smelled marijuana, but he jumped into his car and tried to drive away, dragging an officer who was leaning through the window. Detectives said the officer was afraid he’d be pinned between the car and the gas pumps and barriers, so he fired four times, killing Phillip.”

Despite having previously been arrested for 22 felonies and serving two stints in prison, Phillip’s mother told Fox13 that her son was a “docile, big teddy bear” who would never try to run down a cop.

The Tampa Bay Reporter added that the lawyer Trevena claimed a witness said Phillip “did not try to flee — the car didn’t move until after he was shot, when he was no longer able to control the vehicle.”

The officer “over-reacted … and fired” at Phillip.

There are other apparent contradictions, Trevena said. Largo police first said that Mr. Phillip tried to “pin” Steiner between the car, bollards and gas pump. Later, the department said Steiner was half in and half out of the car and narrowly avoided being run over when he fell to the ground after the shooting.

And the reason given for the traffic stop — illegally tinted windows — doesn’t make sense, the lawyer said, because the car was a rental.

Even more disturbing, Trevena said, is the conduct of the police since the shooting.

Trevena was referring to police saying that the gas station surveillance video the family wanted to see didn’t show the incident and shooting of the unarmed black man in March as well as the attempt to use the dead man’s fingerprints to unlock his phone.

Lt. Randall Chaney told the Tampa Bay Times, “We can’t remember having unlocked a phone in that fashion, either at the scene, the Medical Examiner’s office, or the funeral home. That’s just kind of how new this part of the technology is.”

Southampton Law School associate professor Remigius Nwabueze called “the Largo detectives’ actions ‘ethically unjustifiable’” even if the law provides “no entitlement or legal rights after death to a deceased person.”

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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