A New York federal magistrate court has ordered an unnamed cellphone manufacturer to attempt to unlock a password-protected cellphone so that a search warrant may be executed. In early October, the court authorized law enforcement to search the contents of a cellphone, which had been seized incident to an arrest, for evidence relating to credit card fraud. The federal prosecutor later reported to the court that the government was unable to unlock the contents of the cellphone, which was password protected. The prosecutor made an ex parte application pursuant to the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651, seeking an order that would compel the unnamed manufacturer of the cellphone to assist in the execution of the search warrant by “bypassing the lock screen.” Both the search warrant and the current application have been filed under seal.

The All Writs Act, which was originally enacted in 1789, provides that federal courts “may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” The magistrate court relied on a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case that described the All Writs Act as “a residual source of authority to issue writs that are not otherwise covered by statute.” The court recognized that the “the power of federal courts to impose duties upon third parties is not without limits,” but found that an order requiring the cellphone company to provide technical assistance was not overly burdensome.

For a copy of the New York magistrate decision, click here.