California's Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore has ruled that police forcing suspects, or anybody else, to unlock electronic devices via biometric means is unconstitutional. Specifically, she said that the practice was against the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, being protection from unreasonable search and seizure and protection from self-incrimination, respectively. She proposed alternative measures to obtain communications or files needed for ongoing investigations, such as reaching out to the involved companies. Police could reach out to Facebook to receive a Messenger conversation, for example, or obtain a suspect's Google Photos account if they suspect that a photo linked to the case could have wound up there.
Background: Current laws essentially state that a device locked with a passcode, pattern, or other form of purposeful security put in place by its owner cannot be breached by law enforcement for investigations, with few exceptions. In this particular case, police wanted to conduct a search of a suspect's home and force everybody they found there to unlock all electronics on site. The judge outright rejected the notion of having that happen, as it clearly constituted unreasonable search and seizure. The fact that the people and devices that police wanted to force information from may have had nothing to do with the case at hand, besides involvement of some sort with the suspect, didn't help their case.
This is a victory for privacy advocates, but given the Magistrate's standing and the current sociopolitical climate, it's anybody's guess as to whether the decision will be enough to set a precedent. The practice is a hot-button issue at the moment and has been in the public eye in prominent cases a number of times. This goes double with the rise of consumer-facing encryption technologies, especially ones that are easy to use and built right in with popular apps and services. Naturally, that ties into a larger debate about encryption backdoors, and whether authorities have any right to search the contents of electronic devices.
Impact: The implications of this ruling are quite obvious to anybody who's paid attention to the scene lately; the debate over whether authorities can force suspects to unlock devices with biometric authentication will be reopened, possibly on a national scale. It's quite likely that, before the whole saga falls to rest again, the Supreme Court will step up and make a decision on the matter. Expect to see the usual figures in the tech law world pop up as well, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and possibly the Federal Communications Commission, though this sort of issue is only really adjacent to its area of expertise and authority rather than lying directly within it.
This could really go one of two ways in the end. There's almost certainly going to be a sweeping decision in one direction or the other. The bottom line is that either the powers that be will decide that the police and other authorities can force people to unlock devices, likely through any way necessary, or they will rule that the Magistrate's decision stands on a national level, and privacy-aware citizens will be that much more protected.