A correspondent from St John Ambulance (I’m not sure of which state) says:

A colleague mentioned that they recently attended a patient, who I presume was unconscious, and had used the patient’s thumbprint to access their locked iPhone, allowing them to call a relative and obtain the patient’s past medical history. They were also able to let the relative know that the patient was being transported to hospital. The patient’s iPhone was not, in this case, configured to give access to a ‘Medical ID’ without unlocking the phone.

Could you comment on the legality and possible consequences of doing so, and how this compares with the practice of searching a patient’s wallet to find, for example, a driver’s license. Does the fact that wallets are not generally ‘locked’ (physically or digitally) make a difference?

You can assume that the patient’s condition was sufficiently stable at the time to permit the ‘search’, that conducting the ‘search’ did not hurt the patient (eg, their arm/hand/thumb was uninjured), and that the officers acted with good intent.

My correspondent had read my earlier post Searching the Unconscious Patient (December 11, 2015) and added:

I think your 2015 post answers my question to a large extent, except perhaps the following thought: Is the fact that the patient has locked their phone (which I support might be analogous to carrying a locked suitcase) in any way a refusal to have their phone searched, particularly when modern smartphones provide a means for people to intentionally reveal particular information for use in emergency?

I don’t think the fact the phone is locked makes a difference.   Imagine if someone was found unconscious and the only thing they had was a locked brief case.  There is no doubt that someone, at some point, would force their way in to try to find out what they could about the person.  That may be the police rather than ambulance as it’s not normally up to ambulance to identify the person and call their relatives, and police (depending on the jurisdiction) may have some extra authority to actually break into a ‘receptacle’ (as might ambulance officers, see Ambulance Service Act 1991(Qld) s 38(2)(b)), but in the absence of any specific authority, whether it’s ambulance or police the principle remains the same – if you can’t communicate with the patient and your actions are reasonable and in the person’s best interests, they can be justified.

The difference in the context I’m given is that St John members and paramedics are unlikely to take the time or have the need to force a brief case and, further, you are likely to break it.  Putting someone’s thumb against a phone is not the same.  And I don’t think you can assume that even if smartphones can provide a means to reveal information that the person you’re dealing with knows how to do that or has somehow made a conscious decision that they would rather not release that information.    People do lock their phone to avoid unauthorised access to the data, but if as I’m asked to assume the officers were acting in good faith I can’t see an issue here any different to looking through a wallet.  Of course if you start making phone calls or looking at their photos or other data, that’s a very different situation.