Florida Appeals Court Asks State's Top Court To Decide Whether Compelled Password Production Violates The Fifth Amendment

from the restrictions-may-apply dept

The Florida state Supreme Court is being asked to settle the open question as to whether compelled password production violates the Fifth Amendment. (via FourthAmendment.com)

Last October, a state Appeals Court decided that it did. In a case involving an accident caused by a drunk driver, law enforcement sought to compel the suspect to unlock his phone so they could search it for evidence. It’s unclear what evidence of drunk driving the police hoped to find on the phone, but that’s the case that first made its way to one of the state’s appellate courts.

It all worked out, though. The court ruled that compelling a password is a Fifth Amendment issue because it could force the suspect to hand over evidence to be used against him by prosecutors. Another state appellate court came to the same conclusion earlier this year, ruling that compelling password production to unlock a robbery suspect’s encrypted device violated the Constitution.

In both cases, prosecutors didn’t really care about the password. That’s not what they were after. They wanted what was on the phones, which could be evidence.

It’s a big “could,” though. The state didn’t bring much with it but conclusory arguments which are very much not the same thing as establishing the needed “foregone conclusion.” Without it, the state is seeking to violate the Fifth Amendment, and for the lousiest of reasons.

Below and on appeal, the state’s argument has incorrectly focused on the passcode as the target of the foregone conclusion exception rather than the data shielded by the passcode, arguing that “because the State has established the existence of the passcode and iTunes password, evidence on the Petitioner’s cell phone, and that he can access the content of his phone,” the compelled search was acceptable. Similarly, the trial court specifically held that the “existence, custody, and authenticity of the passcodes are a foregone conclusion” in the order appealed. This holding, which focuses on the passcodes rather than the data behind the wall, misses the mark.


Without reasonable particularity as to the documents sought behind the passcode wall, the facts of this case “plainly fall outside” of the foregone conclusion exception and amount to a mere fishing expedition.

The Appeals Court that reached this same conclusion in the second case has now certified the question for the state Supreme Court to examine. The short cert petition says it’s up to Supreme Court to set the precedent for the state and resolve the supposed conflicts with prior case law the state argues have been raised by the Appeals Court’s decision.

There’s a dissent attached to the cert petition [PDF] that, weirdly, argues the state’s top court shouldn’t take a look at this because the Appeals Court screwed it up the first time. The majority of judges, however, disagrees with the dissent’s rationale. [Emphasis in the original.]

Despite the narrow focus of the State’s motion, our dissenting colleague presents many pages of arguments—old and new—that amount to a second opinion on the merits. Tellingly, our colleague’s almost exclusive focus is on the Fourth Amendment and probable cause despite no party mentioning either of them in their merits briefs and the State advancing no argument on such matters in its motion for rehearing and certification. And whether the probable cause affidavit (which sought to seize broad categories of information from the cellphone—without identifying any specific item—on the basis that criminals use cellphones) was proper or a fishing expedition matters not; we fail to see how the issuance of a subpoena or warrant—whether careful drawn or a fishing expedition—negates the Fifth Amendment’s protections, which are the focus of this case.

The majority says the dissent’s argument is important, but not quite for the reason the dissent thinks it is.

If anything, the relationship that exists between the Fifth Amendment right against compelled personal disclosures and its neighboring and complementary Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures counsels in favor of protection against governmental overreach into individual autonomy in criminal cases.

The dissent’s argument is basically this: it’s not a “fishing expedition” if cops have a warrant. That’s not how fishing expeditions work and the court should know better. The dissent presents an appeal to its own authority (the judicial system at large), which is about the most worthless argument it could make.

The State did not merely issue a subpoena for Pollard’s phone with a hunch that it might provide incriminating information. Rather, the State introduced evidence showing, to a magistrate’s satisfaction, that probable cause existed that Pollard’s phone contained evidence of a crime. This evidence was what they sought, not the passcode that is the subject of this petition.

Ah, the old “magistrates always read warrant applications thoroughly” argument. In this case, there’s a bit more to it: an admission by a co-defendant that the crime was planned via text message. At least that’s something. The case this Appeals Court cited to come to its conclusion dealt with drunk driving — a crime that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with a phone’s contents.

The state’s Supreme Court will have the final say. For now, Florida is (mostly) covered by decisions that say compelling passwords is a Fifth Amendment violation. Whatever the state’s top court decides will be appealed by the losing party, moving it to the federal level. And everything sitting unresolved at the federal level eventually moves to the top court in the land. So, at some point, we’ll probably have a nationwide ruling on compelled password production, for better or worse. For now, the Fifth Amendment protections have an asterisk attached. Successful invocation may only apply locally.

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Comments on “Florida Appeals Court Asks State's Top Court To Decide Whether Compelled Password Production Violates The Fifth Amendment”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Norahc (profile) says:

Re: Because you all care what I think...

I’m still on the fence on this one. Leaning towards, if there is enough evidence to get a warrant for the information on the phone, then no violation of the 5th.

Unless the cops can specify exactly what information they think they will find on the phone and how they know it’s there, it’s still just a fishing expedition.

Especially since they will be able to dig into EVERY aspect of your life stored on your phone and charge you with whatever other laws they think you violated.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Because you all care what I think...

Here’s a related example. If the police have a warrant to search my home, I don’t have to let them in (if I don’t, then they can pick my lock or break down my door) and I don’t have to tell them if I have a room hidden behind my bookshelf (they can search for such things on their own). Why shouldn’t digital security be treated the same way? If I don’t give them my password then they can try to hack around the security or brute-force my password. It’s not my problem if that could take months, years, or millennia.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Because you all care what I think...

When it comes to encrypted data an example that came to mind would be a journal written in code or a unique alphabet that effectively was code.

If police stumble upon a journal that looks to be gibberish it wouldn’t matter how sure they were that contained within it was sufficient evidence to prove that a suspect was guilty for any number of crimes and get them locked up, they still don’t get to demand that the suspect translate it for them or provide the translation/decoding key.

Anonymous Coward says:

since when has a person’s rights had more priority than whatever it is that whatever security agency or representative thereof wanted? basically, all rights and freedoms, along with the constitution have been thrown to hell in a hand basket and all because of the way courts have gone against a person and favored the police and prosecutors! think back and it all changed along with the entertainment industries wanting to know everything about everyone, everywhere, because they refused to adapt to the C20th-21st and didnt give a toss who they locked up even over copying something that was legally owned!

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