Massachusetts Ignores 5th Amendment; Says Defendant Can Be Forced To Decrypt His Computer
from the that's-unfortunate dept
For many years, courts have struggled with the legal question of whether or not law enforcement can force a defendant in a lawsuit to decrypt encrypted files. All the way back in 2007, we wrote about a judge in Vermont finding that such forced decryption represented a Fifth Amendment violation, as it could be considered a form of self-incrimination. However, that was just one court. Other courts have ruled the other way. Not surprisingly, the Justice Department doesn’t believe the Fifth Amendment should apply in these situations, but courts still seem to be divided as judges go back and forth on the issue.
Unfortunately, it appears that Massachusetts’ highest court has now gone over to the wrong side of the debate, finding that there is no Fifth Amendment violation in forcing people to decrypt their computers. In this ruling, the court said that there was “an exception” to the Fifth Amendment, if the results are a “foregone conclusion.” As Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica summarizes:
That exception, the MSJC said, can be invoked when “an act of production does not involve testimonial communication where the facts conveyed already are known to the government, such that the individual ‘adds little or nothing to the sum total of the Government’s information.’”
Of course, that seems like a fairly dangerous “exception.” Prosecutors can just claim that such facts are “already known.” Furthermore, if the information adds little or nothing, then… why is it even needed? It’s difficult to see why anyone should be forced to decrypt information on the basis that… it’s not really needed. Here’s the key paragraph from the ruling:
When considering the entirety of the defendant’s interview with Trooper Johnson, it is apparent that the defendant was engaged in real estate transactions involving Baylor Holdings, that he used his computers to allegedly communicate with its purported owners, that the information on all of his computers pertaining to these transactions was encrypted, and that he had the ability to decrypt the files and documents. The facts that would be conveyed by the defendant through his act of decryption—his ownership and control of the computers and their contents, knowledge of the fact of encryption, and knowledge of the encryption key—already are known to the government and, thus, are a “foregone conclusion.” The Commonwealth’s motion to compel decryption does not violate the defendant’s rights under the Fifth Amendment because the defendant is only telling the government what it already knows.
Given the back and forth nature of so many of these rulings, you have to imagine that it’ll eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Hopefully that Court’s renewed belief in the Fourth Amendment will extend to the Fifth as well.