Florida Court’s iPhone Ruling Strikes At The Heart Of 5th Amendment

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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A Florida court ruled a man can be forced to reveal his smartphone password to law enforcement as part of an investigation, after he was accused of snapping a picture under a woman’s skirt.

The defendant, Aaron Stahl, was arrested after surveillance cameras allegedly spotted him taking photos of a woman’s undercarriage with his iPhone. A trial court initially ruled that the man did not have to disclose his password, but Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals reversed that decision, according to BBC News.

Following the initial arrest, Stahl gave consent to allow officers to search his iPhone 5, which was located in his home. Once police obtained access to the mobile device, Stahl seemed to change his mind and would not grant them access.

The original trial court judge said that Stahl was protected under the Fifth Amendment from incriminating himself, and also cited then-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the lone dissenter in the 8-1 decision in Doe v. US (1988).

Stevens wrote at the time that a defendant couldn’t be made to use his mind in assisting government’s legal cases.

“A defendant can be compelled to produce material evidence that is incriminating,” Stevens said. “But can he be compelled to use his mind to assist the prosecution in convicting him of a crime? I think not. He may in some cases be forced to surrender a key to a strongbox containing incriminating documents, but I do not believe he can be compelled to reveal the combination to his wall safe—by word or deed.”

Judge Anthony Black, who wrote the decision for the three-judge panel, rejected this notion, according to Daily Dot.

“We question whether identifying the key which will open the strongbox–such that the key is surrendered–is, in fact, distinct from telling an officer the combination,” Black said. “More importantly, we question the continuing viability of any distinction as technology advances.”

California police raided a home in May and demanded that everyone in the residence use their fingers to unlock a mobile device the police couldn’t decrypt themselves. Legal experts question the legality of such a mandate, saying it likely violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

“They want the ability to get a warrant on the assumption that they will learn more after they have a warrant,” Marina Medvin of Medvin Law told Forbes of the California case. In other words, she claims law enforcement is using the warrant to force people who are not yet deemed suspects to comply.

“It’s something the Supreme Court will need to weigh in on eventually,” Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, told BBC News.

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