Another small dart has been lodged in the thigh of the Fifth Amendment by the courts. A Miami, FL federal judge has ruled that defendants in a sex video extortion case must turn over their phones’ passwords.
In a case being closely watched in legal and tech circles, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Charles Johnson ruled that Hencha Voigt, and another man charged with being her accomplice, must unlock phones police believe were used in a plot to extort a social-media celebrity.
He ruled that unlocking their phones would not violate their constitutional right against self-incrimination.
“For me, this is like turning over a key to a safe deposit box,” Johnson said.
The jurisprudence related to passwords and the Fifth Amendment is all over the place, but it seems to be leaning towards treating device passwords and pins as “non-testimonial.” Other decisions have resulted in the indefinite jailing of defendants on contempt of court charges for refusing to turn over passwords. Arguing against self-incrimination hasn’t found many judicial supporters, but the issue is far from settled.
Indefinite jailing may be on tap for these defendants as well. They’ve been given two weeks to comply with the order, with the “or else” being a stay of indeterminate length at the local lockup. The Miami judge appears to be following state precedent, citing an earlier case where the state appeals court ruled in favor of the government, ordering an upskirt photographer to turn over his password to prosecutors.
This decision will be appealed. But the decision cited by this judge appears to indicate this will only delay the inevitable. Sooner or later, this issue will have to be addressed by the Supreme Court, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen. The Supreme Court frequently takes a pass on timely issues, leaving circuit appeals courts to do most of the heavy lifting. There really hasn’t been enough Fifth Amendment cases of this type in federal appeals courts to press the issue. So far, the only thing that’s been made clear in multiple cases is fingerprints are worse than passwords when it comes to locking law enforcement out of phone contents.