The judge granted the Justice Department’s request to place Capitol riot defendant Guy Reffitt in front of his laptop so they could use facial recognition to unlock the device. The maneuver happened after the hearing ended and Reffitt’s lawyer confirmed to CNN that the laptop was unlocked.
Investigators seized the laptop and other devices earlier this year pursuant to a search warrant.
Reffitt has been in jail since his arrest in January. His case received national attention after his son spoke publicly about how Reffitt had threatened to kill family members if they turned him into the FBI. The case became an example of how former President Donald Trump’s lies tore some families apart — Reffitt’s son and daughter testified against him in court or before the grand jury.
He pleaded not guilty to five federal crimes, including bringing a handgun to the Capitol grounds during the insurrection and obstructing justice by allegedly threatening his family. The felony gun charge was added last month, and undercuts false claims from Trump and prominent Republican lawmakers that the rioters weren’t armed and that they had “no guns whatsoever.”
The case raised intriguing constitutional questions about the right against self-incrimination, but Judge Dabney Friedrich agreed with prosecutors that the unlocking was within the law.
In previous court filings, Reffitt’s attorneys said that the search warrant for the laptop had expired, and that Reffitt didn’t remember if there was a password.
“As the court here noted, requiring a defendant to expose his face to unlock a computer can be lawful, and is not far removed from other procedures that are now routinely approved by courts, with proper justification: standing in a lineup, submitting a handwriting or voice exemplar, or submitting a blood or DNA sample,” CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig said in an email.
When judges consider requests like these, Honig said, they try to strike a balance “between respecting a defendant’s privacy and other rights on the one hand, and enabling prosecutors to obtain potentially crucial evidence with minimal intrusion on the defendant’s rights, on the other.”
By the time that Reffitt entered the courtroom, two FBI agents had set up his Microsoft Surface Pro laptop and two bags worth of technical equipment. Prosecutors have previously said in court filings that they believed the laptop contained more than 6 gigabytes of videos that Reffitt filmed on a helmet-worn camera while he moved from the Ellipse to the US Capitol grounds.
If the videos are on the laptop, prosecutors said, they could contain valuable evidence, like footage of the handgun that he brought to the Capitol, or any comments he made about his intentions that day.
Reffitt — who was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, white Velcro sneakers and a medical face mask — seemed uninterested during most of the proceedings. He often rubbed his eyes, and at one point even leaned so far back in his chair that he had to catch himself from falling.