Police Can’t Demand You Reveal Your Phone Passcode and Then Tell a Jury You Refused

By Andrew Crocker

The Utah Supreme Court is the latest stop in EFF’s roving campaign to establish your Fifth Amendment right to refuse to provide your password to law enforcement. Yesterday, along with the ACLU, we filed an amicus brief in State v. Valdez, arguing that the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination prevents the police from forcing suspects to reveal the contents of their minds. That includes revealing a memorized passcode or directly entering the passcode to unlock a device.

In Valdez, the defendant was charged with kidnapping his ex-girlfriend after arranging a meeting under false pretenses. During his arrest, police found a cell phone in Valdez’s pocket that they wanted to search for evidence that he set up the meeting, but Valdez refused to tell them the passcode. Unlike many other cases raising these issues, however, the police didn’t bother seeking a court order to compel Valdez to reveal his passcode. Instead, during trial, the prosecution offered testimony and argument about his refusal. The defense argued that this violated the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, which also prevents the state from commenting on his silence. The court of appeals agreed, and now the state has appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.

As we write in the brief:

The State cannot compel a suspect to recall and share information that exists only in his mind. The realities of the digital age only magnify the concerns that animate the Fifth Amendment’s protections. In accordance with these principles, the Court of Appeals held that communicating a memorized passcode is testimonial, and thus the State’s use at trial of Mr. Valdez’s refusal to do so violated his privilege against self-incrimination. Despite the modern technological context, this case turns on one of the most fundamental protections in our constitutional system: an accused person’s ability to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights without having his silence used against him. The Court of Appeals’ decision below rightly rejected the State’s circumvention of this protection. This Court should uphold that decision and extend that protection to all Utahns.

Protecting these fundamental rights is only more important as we also fight to keep automated surveillance off our devices that would compromise our security and privacy. We’ll await a decision on this important issue from the Utah Supreme Court.

Source: EFF.org

Andrew is a senior staff attorney on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s civil liberties team. He focuses on EFF’s national security and privacy docket, as well as the Coders’ Rights Project. While in law school, Andrew worked at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and the Center for Democracy and Technology. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University. His interests include Boggle and donuts.



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