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Name: People v. Ramirez (2023) 98 Cal.App.5th 175
Case #: H049957
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 6 DCA
Opinion Date: 12/22/2023

Even assuming the compelled use of defendant’s fingerprint to unlock his cell phone constitutes a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, there was no Fourth Amendment violation because use of defendant’s fingerprint was authorized by the search warrants. Jane Doe 1’s mother reported that defendant had taken inappropriate pictures of Jane Doe 1 on his phone. After obtaining electronic communications search warrants to search defendant’s phone, an officer went to the jail and used defendant’s fingerprint to unlock the phone and view its contents. When the phone locked and officers were unable to open it, they obtained another search warrant and again used defendant’s fingerprint to unlock the phone, finding images and sexually explicit videos of Jane Doe 1. Defendant’s suppression motion was denied and he was convicted of multiple sex offenses against four different victims. On appeal, he argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when officers forcibly extracted his biometric data (in the form of a fingerprint) without a separate warrant specifically authorizing such extraction. Held: Affirmed. The scope of a warrant is determined by its language, and officers executing a search warrant must interpret it reasonably but not narrowly. Here, nothing on the face of the warrants referenced how or whether police could unlock defendant’s phone. However, the probable cause statements in support of the warrants specifically requested permission to obtain defendant’s fingerprint to unlock the phone and to use reasonable force to compel defendant to produce his fingerprint if necessary, and those statements were attached to and incorporated by reference into the warrants. The magistrate was therefore aware that defendant’s fingerprint would likely be necessary for the search of the phone to be carried out and authorized the search with that knowledge. Because use of the fingerprint was authorized by the warrant, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred. [Editor’s Note: The court further concluded that even if the warrant did not authorize the compelled use of defendant’s fingerprint to unlock the phone (as this need was not specifically listed on the face of the warrant), the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied and no deterrent purpose would be served by excluding the evidence obtained from the phone as the officers acted reasonably in relying on the warrants.]

The act of compelling defendant to place his fingers on his phone to unlock it did not violate defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against compulsory self-incrimination. To qualify for the Fifth Amendment privilege, a communication must be testimonial, meaning that it must explicitly or implicitly relate a factual assertion or disclose information. Here, the court agreed with the decisions from other jurisdictions holding that compelling a suspect to place his or her a finger on a phone does not constitute a testimonial act. Law enforcement used defendant’s fingerprint solely for its physical characteristics as a biometric key to unlock the phone. Defendant was not asked to communicate anything (verbally or otherwise), and was not asked to engage in any thought process to unlock the phone, as the officer selected the fingers to be used in unlocking the phone—a process defendant did not even need to be conscious for. The court disagreed with defendant’s argument that using defendant’s fingerprint to unlock the phone was testimonial in nature because it communicated that he previously accessed the phone and had control over the phone and its contents. Even if defendant engaged in some marginal implicit communication by providing his fingerprint to unlock his phone, the fact that defendant had access to and control over the phone at issue was a “foregone conclusion” in light of the other evidence police had at the time. Because defendant’s act was nontestimonial, no concern regarding compulsory self-incrimination was present, and the trial court did not err in denying the suppression motion on this basis.

Compelled use of defendant’s finger to unlock his phone did not violate defendant’s due process rights. Even if defendant’s act of unlocking the phone with his finger had some testimonial aspect (an assertion the court disagreed with), any such testimony or confession was not introduced at trial, as the officer never explicitly mentioned in his trial testimony that defendant’s finger unlocked the phone. In addition, even though defendant’s act of placing the finger on the phone was not voluntary, the physical force the officer used to effect the unlocking of the phone was minimal and reasonable. Placing defendant’s finger against his phone was less intrusive than a compulsory blood draw, and defendant identified no evidence that law enforcement’s actions in guiding his finger to the phone shocks the conscience or constituted force beyond that which was necessary to overcome defendant’s resistance.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting expert testimony that was the equivalent of child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome (CSAAS) evidence. On appeal, defendant argued that CSAAS evidence should be generally inadmissible because it is unreliable and will always support the conclusion that abuse occurred (because it suggests that both intuitive and counterintuitive behavior support an alleged victim’s credibility), and that jurors are no longer likely to hold the misconceptions that CSAAS evidence is meant to address; thus, admission of CSAAS evidence at trial deprived him of due process by permitting the jury to infer that the victims were credible witnesses. The court disagreed. In People v. McAlpin (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1289, 1300-1302, the California Supreme Court recognized that CSAAS expert testimony is admissible to disabuse jurors of commonly held misconceptions about child sexual abuse victims’ behavior and to explain seemingly contradictory behavior of a child sexual abuse victim. McAlpin remains binding on lower courts. Because CSAAS evidence is generally admissible for the limited purposes for which it was admitted in the instant case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting it. Further, even if the evidence should have been excluded, and even if its admission violated defendant’s due process rights, any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because defendant suffered no prejudice. [Editor’s Note: The court further concluded that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury with CALCRIM Nos. 1193 and 1191B, and that defendant did not receive constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel based on trial counsel’s lack of objection to a statement by the prosecutor concerning lesser included offenses. In addition, defendant forfeited any objection that the trial court erred in imposing various fines and fees and did not demonstrate trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object.]