New Jersey Court rules suspects can be compelled to hand over phone passcodes

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The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled a defendant can be forced to give up their iPhone's passcode, a decision that goes against arguments that such actions violate the Fifth Amendment.

The court agreed with prosecutors when asked about locked smartphones and whether they have to be given up to law enforcement, as part of an investigation into a former Essex County sheriff's officer and their dealings with a Bloods street gang. The court decided to rule in favor, but narrowly, with the decision being 4-3 for the motion.

The decision, as reported by NorthJersey.com, rejects the argument that providing access to a smartphone's locked data violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against self-incrimination.

The ruling forces former officer Robert Andrews to hand over passcodes for two smartphones to investigators. Andrews has been charged with multiple counts of official misconduct, as well as hindering apprehension and obstruction, for allegedly tipping off a person of interest ahead of their arrest in 2015.

After admitting to having conversed Andrews, authorities found evidence of 114 exchanges between the officer and the person of interest. When a warrant was secured for a closer inspection, Andrews claimed providing the passcodes was the equivalent of being compelled to provide "testimony" that could be self-incriminating.

The state told the court that this doesn't apply due to the "foregone conclusion exception" of the Fifth Amendment, namely that they knew messages existed and the only thing preventing access was Andrews' passcode.

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center counsel Megan Iorio, whom provided a brief to the court on behalf of Andrews, the court "emphasized that the search warrant in this case was significantly narrowed by a trial court order, and that decision did not give law enforcement license to conduct a fishing expedition."

The ruling is the latest event in an ongoing series of rulings concerning whether demanding passcode or biometric access to mobile devices is permissible, with courts varying their rulings over time.

In January 2019, a federal judge in California ruled Face ID and Touch ID unlocks couldn't be compelled by law enforcement officials, a decision agreed upon by a US magistrate in August that same year. However, in 2016, a Los Angeles court ordered a woman to unlock her Touch ID-secured iPhone as part of an FBI investigation into the Armenian Power gang.

 

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