Crime & Courts

Mecklenburg district attorney may ask FBI to help unlock iPhones

The Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office will likely ask the FBI to help unlock iPhones in criminal cases.
The Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office will likely ask the FBI to help unlock iPhones in criminal cases. TNS

The Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office will likely ask the FBI to help unlock iPhones in criminal cases, after the federal agency announced that it had found a way to hack into a suspected terrorist’s phone.

In a statement to the Observer on Thursday, the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s office said: “The DA’s Office anticipates that there will be situations in which this office and local law enforcement will request the FBI’s assistance to access cellphones to further investigate criminal offenses.”

The FBI announced Monday that it had gained access into an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after killing 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. The FBI hasn’t revealed how it cracked Farook’s iPhone.

Law enforcement agencies across North Carolina had already told the Observer they would seek help in unlocking phones in criminal cases if the FBI won its court case.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s cybercrime unit examines about 800 phones a year. In up to about 20 percent of those cases, or roughly 160 phones, encryption prevents officers from accessing texts, photos and other information from the device, CMPD told the Observer.

“Those phones are a treasure trove, “ Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray told the Observer in February. “(Apple) is preventing me from taking a murderer off the streets.”

The FBI has already said it would help at least one prosecutor. The agency agreed on Wednesday to help an Arkansas prosecutor unlock an iPhone and iPod belonging to two teenagers accused of killing a couple.

Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland said the FBI agreed to the request from his office and the Conway Police Department Wednesday afternoon. A judge on Tuesday agreed to postpone the trial of 18-year-old Hunter Drexler so prosecutors could ask the FBI for help. Drexler’s trial was moved from next week to June 27.

Drexler and 15-year-old Justin Staton are accused of killing Robert and Patricia Cogdell at their home in Conway, 30 miles north of Little Rock, in July. The Cogdells had raised Staton as their grandson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson

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