Judge Denies Government's Motion Asking Apple to Unlock iPhone in Narcotics Case

PHOTO: This Feb. 17, 2016 file photo shows an iPhone in Washington. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
This Feb. 17, 2016 file photo shows an iPhone in Washington.

The United States government's motion to compel Apple's assistance in unlocking an iPhone in a narcotics case was denied today by Magistrate Judge James Orenstein in Brooklyn, New York.

In October, the Department of Justice sought a motion to compel Apple’s compliance with a subpoena ordering the company to help the government extract data from an alleged drug dealer’s iPhone.

But rather than issuing the order to compel, as the magistrate judge in San Bernardino case did, the Brooklyn magistrate judge instead sought arguments from both the government and Apple.

"Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device; it is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come," the ruling says. "For the reasons set forth above, I conclude that it does not. The government's motion is denied."

The Justice Department said in a statement today that it was "disappointed in the Magistrate’s ruling and plan to ask the District Judge to review the matter in the coming days."

"As our prior court filings make clear, Apple expressly agreed to assist the government in accessing the data on this iPhone -- as it had many times before in similar circumstances -- and only changed course when the government’s application for assistance was made public by the court," the DOJ added in its statement. "This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it."

On a conference call with reporters this evening, a senior Apple exec said the judge in Brooklyn “completely sides with Apple” and that the ruling in the Brooklyn case is “on point” for the San Bernardino case, too.

The Apple exec called the judge’s ruling a “thoughtful,” “cogent” and “masterly piece of analysis,” noting that the judge today ruled against government arguments citing case law and the legislative history of the All Writs Acts, which forms much of the basis for government’s arguments in trying to force Apple to help.

The executive, however, said that people following these cases should not view this as two courts now disagreeing. He said that in San Bernardino case, the government went to the court with an “ex parte” filing, meaning “without explaining Apple’s positions [and] asked the court to make an order.” In that case, Apple is “being given an opportunity” to make its arguments (culminating with arguments in court on March 22) and that is when these two cases will be closer to the same point -- meaning when a judge has opportunity to truly look at both sides’ arguments.

“It’s not that the decisions are different,” the Apple executive said. However, he said that the Brooklyn case is “undoubtedly” an important precedent in that “this is the first time that a court has looked specifically at this issue,” and sided with Apple.

He said “all the arguments” by the Justice Department in the Brooklyn case are “identical” to the arguments being made in San Bernardino case. The executive then acknowledged that “there is no binding precedent here” with the ruling today -- meaning a federal judge in California is not bound to consider a ruling by a federal judge in New York.

The executive noted that the ruling today describes the case as a constitutional issue, and noted that the judge also said this is a matter that should be decided by Congress -- “precisely as we argued in the San Bernardino case.”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.