Florida Appeals Court Sides with Defendant in Finding That He Does Not Need to Turn Over Phone’s Passcode in Response to Warrant
In a groundbreaking court case decision out of the Florida appeals court, the court recently sided with a criminal defendant in deciding that he did not have to turn over his cell phone passcode to police. The decision came out of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Alachua County in a robbery case after two other state appellate courts came to different conclusions.
In the case, the police obtained a warrant to take the defendant’s iPhone from his car. In doing so, they sought to access broad amounts of encrypted information, including a history of calls and texts, pictures, information from the apps, and other information from the phone. While the circuit court ordered the defendant to turn over the passcode, the appeals court overturned the decision, relying on the 5th amendment protection against self-incrimination.
In doing so, the majority agreed with the previous decision out of Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal, which found that, unless the state can describe “with reasonable particularity” the information it seeks to access, an attempt to seek all communication, images, and data amounts to a “mere fishing expedition.” In other words, this kind of request is far too broad to be permitted under the U.S. Constitution, and is based on a generalized belief that criminal enterprises operate via electronic communications that leave a digital trail, which falls short of the “reasonable particularly” standard.
Courts “Struggling to Find Common Legal Ground”
This is currently a controversial issue, with some describing it as a challenge to a number of courts around the country that are “struggling to find common legal ground” when it comes to the issue. Thus far, Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal—which hears cases in Southwest Florida—took the opposite approach, and has set precedent ordering defendants to turn over passcodes.
In fact, in other jurisdictions, some suspects have been held in criminal contempt and sentenced to prison for refusing to reveal their phone’s passcode; even after swearing, under oath, that they had provided the password already. In some cases, defendants have claimed that they cannot recall the password. In one such case, a Miami-Dade Circuit Judge held that there was no way to prove that the defendant remembered the code more than 10 months after they were arrested.
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