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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Another Encrypted Cell Phone Case Gets Attention

By: Timothy P. Flynn

A judge in Virginia was recently faced with a decision whether to allow a county prosecutor to compel an accused to produce two things: his cell phone passcode and his fingerprint.  In Virginia vs David Charles Baust, the judge granted the prosecutor's request for Baust to produce his fingerprint, but denied the request for his cell phone encrypted passcode.

The accused deployed technology in his bedroom; he utilized a recorder that sent images of his sex play to his cell phone.  Only, in February, a woman came forward saying that Baust assaulted her and that she believed the incident was recorded.

Jackpot for the prosecutor if they can get their hands on the video; game over for Mr. Baust.  Defense counsel, however, says "not-so-fast"; there are constitutional rights to consider.

Local law enforcement executed a search warrant and seized Baust's cell phone and video recording equipment. The police, however, have been prevented from "entering" Baust's cell phone due to the passcode encryption on the device.

The issue before the Virginia trial court was whether compelling the defendant to produce a piece of incriminating evidence violates his constitutional right against self-incrimination under the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution; and whether producing the passcode and/or his fingerprint constitutes "testimonial communication".

If his passcode is deemed to be "testimonial communication" then it is protected under the 5th Amendment and Baust cannot be compelled to produce the information.  We've seen this movie before here in Detroit, Michigan: United States vs Kirschner, from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Like the trial court judge in Virginia, Judge Paul Borman held in Kirschner that compelling an accused to provide a passcode for his encrypted cell phone involved a mental process deemed to constitute "testimonial communication" and was thus protected by the 5th Amendment.

As for the fingerprint, Baust could be forced to produce that all day long; just as he could be forced to submit to a line-up, provide a voice sample, biological sample, or a handwriting exemplar.  These things are not testimonial in nature.

It is a long way from a state trial court to SCOTUS review.  The SCOTUS granted Certiorari in a cell phone data retrieval case from California case last year; presumably, the California case will be argued to the High Court at some point this term.

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