Apple Wins Major Court Victory Against FBI in a Case Similar to San Bernardino

Apple scored a major legal victory in its ongoing battle against the FBI on Monday when a federal magistrate judge in New York rejected the U.S. government’s request as part of a drug case to force the company to help it extract data from a locked iPhone. The ruling from U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein was issued as part of the criminal case against Jun Feng, who pleaded guilty in October to drug charges. It is a significant boost to Apple’s well-publicized campaign to resist the FBI’s similar efforts in the case of the San Bernardino killers.

While the decision has no direct impact on the FBI-versus-Apple case in the San Bernardino investigation, it’s being celebrated by some as at least representing judicial opinion that there are limits to government powers in cases regarding extraction of data from devices.

In the New York case, the feds have been asking Apple to unlock the iPhone of one Jun Feng, a suspected drug dealer, based on the arguments in the US All Writs Act (AWA). Feng has already entered a guilty plea and is due for sentencing in August.

With Feng’s phone in hand but no way to unlock it, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency wanted a New York magistrate – Judge James Orenstein – to use the AWA to grant access to the device.

Judge Orenstein has nixed the idea, at least in his jurisdiction, on the grounds that the act can’t be used to force Apple to manipulate its products. In his ruling on Monday, [PDF], the judge wrote:

The implications of the government’s position are so far-reaching – both in terms of what it would allow today and what it implies about Congressional intent in 1789 – as to produce impermissibly absurd results.

He added that to give the FBI and DEA what they wanted could end up with such a great expansion of government powers, it would put the AWA’s constitutionality in doubt.

The judge added that since Apple has no responsibility for Feng’s wrongdoing, he could not justify “imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will.”

Judge Orenstain said he was not convinced the All Writs Act, a law written in 1789, could be used to force Apple to comply. The same law is being used in San Bernardino.

“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,” Judge Orenstein wrote. “I conclude that it does not.”

The recent showdown began after a US judge ordered Apple to help the FBI in its investigation into the San Bernardino shooting in California, in which 14 people were killed. The court ruled Apple must provide “reasonable technical assistance” to investigators seeking data on Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c.