A Florida state court has ruled that suspected crims can be forced to hand over their smartphone passcodes to cops and other investigators.
Generally in America, you don't have to hand over your passcodes and passwords to the police – because this information is considered personal knowledge, and divulging it is therefore self incrimination. Fingerprints, which can unlock modern mobes, are another story: you have to give those over if you've been collared by the cops because they are physically on you.
Well, on that point of passcodes, maybe not so in Florida. Judge Charles Johnson of the Miami-Dade Circuit Court said Wednesday that two people facing extortion charges do not have a constitutional protection against being forced by investigators to hand over the PINs to unlock their phones.
Hencha Voigt and Wesley Victor are accused of using stolen photos and videos to extort cash from SnapChat queen Julieanna "Yes Julz" Goddard. Voigt and Victor's smartphones – an iPhone and a BlackBerry – are believed to contain evidence of the extortion plot.
Police had sought to force the pair to give them their passcodes, while defense lawyers had claimed giving up the PINs would violate Fifth Amendment protections against forced self-incrimination.
According to the Miami Herald today, the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution with the reasoning that the codes were not equivalent to being forced to testify, but were more like "turning over a key to a safety box."
The defense now has two weeks to give up the passcodes or risk contempt of court charges.
The judge cited a precedent set last year when a state court of appeals ruled a man accused of voyeurism did not have legal protection against the unlocking of his handset.
Judge Johnson's ruling today covers Florida, rather than the US as a whole, although courts in other states can cite this decision if they wish. And it can be appealed to a higher bench, of course. It is likely to trigger a debate across America over what extent law enforcement officials can go to when trying to unlock a mobile device.
The debate was pushed to the forefront last year, when Apple and the FBI clashed over a demand to unlock an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. The feds ultimately avoided a legal war by opting instead to obtain a software bypass. ®