Largo, FL – The fiancé of a dead drug dealer has expressed outrage after investigators used the dead man’s finger in an attempt to unlock his cell phone.
“I just felt so disrespected and violated,” Victoria Armstrong, 28, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Largo Police Lieutenant Randall Chaney said that the investigators only had a window of 48 to 72 hours to access the phone using the device’s fingerprint sensor.
They hoped the effort would enable them to preserve evidence related to the officer-involved shooting that resulted in the man’s death, as well as data pertaining to an ongoing drug investigation, the Tamp Bay Times reported.
Two detectives responded to the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater on March 26, where they were given access to the body of 30-year-old Linus Phillip.
Armstrong also happened to be present at the funeral home when the detectives arrived.
“Nobody even calling us from the facility to let us know detectives were coming there at all is very disturbing,” Armstrong said. “I’m very skeptical of all funeral homes now.”
The investigators then held the corpse’s finger to the phone’s fingerprint sensor, but were unable to unlock the device, Lt. Chaney said.
Although the detectives’ actions were legal, Phillip’s family felt the effort was inappropriate.
Legal experts sided with police – at least with regard to the law.
Charles Rose, professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson University College of Law told the Tampa Bay Times that “there’s a ghoulish component to it that’s troubling to most people.”
“Given that the owner of the phone is dead, he no longer has a privacy right to assert under the Fourth Amendment. It’s an open question as to whether his family might have that right, but he does not,” Rose explained.
John Trevena, an attorney for Phillip’s family, filed a complaint against the detectives who attempted to use the body’s fingerprint, NBC News reported.
He said they were also entertaining the idea of suing the City of Largo for an unwarranted search.
The officer-involved shooting occurred on Mar. 23, when Largo Police Officer Matt Steiner was parked in an unmarked patrol vehicle, watching for possible narcotics activity at a gas station nearby, Prosecutor Bernie McCabe said in a letter to Largo Police Chief Jeffrey Undestad.
Officer Steiner noticed a black Nissan Altima with a window tint violation, so he began following the suspect vehicle while he waited for another officer to confirm his suspicious regarding the tint violation.
As Officer Prentice Ables responded to the area, Officer Steiner watched the driver pull into the Wawa gas station at 5:56 p.m.
Officer Steiner parked his patrol vehicle on one side of the suspect’s vehicle, and made contact with the driver, later identified as Phillip.
“What are you stopping me for?” Phillip asked the officer.
“I’m not stopping you for anything,” Officer Steiner replied, as he approached Phillip from the rear side of the Altima. “I am just talking to you.”
Officer Steiner asked Phillip if the vehicle was his, and was told that it was a rental. The officer then asked to see a copy of the rental agreement, which Phillip retrieved for him.
Officer Steiner noticed a “strong odor of marijuana coming from Phillip and the car,” and believed he had probable cause to search both the vehicle and Phillip, McCabe said in the letter.
“Why does the car smell like marijuana?” the officer asked.
Phillip said that the vehicle did not smell like marijuana, and told the officer he could search the vehicle.
But when Officer Steiner told Phillip he planned to search him first, and then the vehicle, Phillip grabbed “two large bulges located in the front pockets of his gym shorts,” McCabe said.
Investigators later discovered 6.6 grams of crack cocaine, 5.8 grams of marijuana, 12.2 grams of powdered cocaine, hydromorphone pills, and $1,632 cash in Phillip’s pockets.
Phillip was standing in the open door of the Altima, just feet away from Officer Steiner, in the small confines of the space between the vehicle and the gas pump.
Officer Ables then arrived on the scene, and also noticed an odor of marijuana as he approached the suspect’s vehicle.
As the officers closed in, Phillip stepped backwards, then quickly pivoted and jumped into the driver’s seat of the Altima, which was still running.
“Officer Steiner realized that Phillip was going to flee and that he was trapped between the gas pump and the open door,” McCabe said. “Having nowhere to go, Officer Steiner jumped halfway into the vehicle and struggled with Phillip over the gear shifter.”
The officer commanded Phillip to put the vehicle into park, but the man slammed it into reverse.
“Officer Steiner also tried to put his foot on the brake in an effort to prevent the car from leaving,” McCabe said.
As the Altima began moving backwards, Officer Ables pushed Officer Steiner into the vehicle and quickly moved out of the way, hoping to prevent both he and his partner from being run over.
As the situation escalated, Officer Steiner drew his duty weapon. Phillip then rapidly accelerated in reverse.
“Officer Ables observed Officer Steiner hanging onto the vehicle and was about to be pulled underneath,” McCabe said. “[He] observed Officer Steiner discharge his weapon as the Altima continued to rapidly accelerate in reverse.”
Officer Steiner fired his weapon at Phillip four times, hitting him in the side of his torso, and in the leg. The officer then fell out of the car, and the vehicle’s open door passed over him as the car continued to move backwards.
The Altima made a wide arc before it collided with a pump guard structure, then moved forward at idle speed, crashing into another vehicle parked at a nearby pump.
Officer Steiner was then able to place the vehicle into park, and pulled Phillip from the vehicle to perform CPR.
Phillip was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Officer Steiner was treated for a knee sprain, abrasions, and other minor injuries.
On April 13, McCabe announced that the officer-involved shooting was justifiable, and that Phillip had placed Officer Steiner in “imminent fear for his life.”
The Associated Press released a widely-circulated report on the shooting saying only that he was killed when “he tried to drive away before an officer could search him.”