Judge sides with Apple in NY drug probe iPhone case


San Francisco (AFP)

A US magistrate judge in New York on Monday ruled that police overstepped the law when they called on Apple to unlock the iPhone of a suspected drug dealer.

The ruling could signal Apple is on sound footing in a separate but similar battle with the US government over being forced to help crack into an iPhone used by one of the shooters in December's San Bernardino attacks.

US Magistrate James Orenstein in New York said in a 50-page opinion that law enforcement lacked the authority to compel Apple to comply.

"The relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it," the judge said.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI went to court to compel Apple to help it break into an iPhone confiscated in June of 2014 from a suspected methamphetamine trafficker, according to court documents.

The US government sought to get Apple to help break into the iPhone under the auspices of the All Writs Act, which is what is being relied on in the San Bernardino case -- a 1789 law which gives wide latitude to law enforcement.

Orenstein refused to issue the order in the case, saying it undermined Constitutional principles and was a matter to be dealt with by Congress.

"This is precisely on point in the San Bernardino case," a senior Apple executive said during a telephone briefing with reporters after the New York ruling was issued.

Apple and FBI are locked in battle over a warrant seeking to force the technology company to help unlock the iPhone used by one of the shooters in December's San Bernardino attacks.

Apple's refusal has set off an intense political debate about encrypted devices that provide "keys" only to users.