One of the most valuable pieces of property that any of us own these days is our cellphone. Although they are often expensive, their primary value is not financial. Instead, they typically hold access to all of our most private and personal data. For this reason, most of us are careful to lock our phones with passcodes that only we know.
Do we have a right to keep people from accessing the contents of our phones, even if those people are law enforcement officers with a warrant? And should we be compelled to give up our passcode to law enforcement if they can’t access our phones through their own efforts? That question was at the heart of a recent court ruling that could someday be debated before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling comes from New Jersey but could very well have implications here in Arkansas. It concerns a police officer charged with aiding an acquaintance who was under investigation on suspicion of drug trafficking. The trafficking suspect eventually turned on the officer and told authorities that the officer had been advising him on how to avoid criminal exposure. He said the officer’s cellphone records would show ample evidence that the two had been in communication.
Authorities obtained a search warrant for the officer’s phone, but could not get into it without his passcode, which he refused to provide. He claimed that forcing him to give up his passcode to obtain evidence of his guilt would be violating his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. A number of prominent groups agreed with him, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Jersey State Bar Association.
Nonetheless, the state Supreme Court recently ruled 4-3 that “neither federal nor state protections against compelled disclosure shield [the officer’s] passcodes.” Although it is unclear what the next steps are in this case, it could very well be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
In 2014, SCOTUS unanimously ruled that law enforcement could not conduct warrantless searches of a suspect’s cellphone during arrest. The Court noted that these devices contain “the privacies of life” for many of us, and they should therefore be treated with more protection than any another ordinary modern convenience.
Court rulings on technology are particularly important because they will define how much privacy the average American can expect when it comes to law enforcement and criminal prosecution. Hopefully, if this case does go before SCOTUS, the Court will rule to protect the privacy and Constitutional rights of defendants.