5th Amendment Under Fire in Fricosu Case
Ramona Fricosu, of Peyton, Colorado is accused of being a part of a mortgage scam. In the course of the investigation against her, search warrants were executed on May 14th of 2010. In that search, the FBI took a Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop.
Then came a problem. Investigators discovered that her laptop’s hard drive was encrypted very very well. Therefore, files that the investigators felt were incriminating and vital to the future prosecution were locked away. They concluded it would take a really long time to decrypt the entire drive.
Since this case is being prosecuted in America, all criminal prosecutions are required to be done so with full due process of law, which includes the right to a speedy trial. So the decade or more it would take for the prosecution (read: investigative bureau) to decrypt the files would necessarily violate Miss Fricosu’s rights and the charges would not endure.
So what is a judge to do? Option one is to realize that the laws are in place to protect the citizens of the United States against the overpowering force of an unbridled government. He would therefore throw the case out if the investigation delayed trial longer than a certain period of time. Option two is to order the defendant to decrypt the laptop for investigators.
Last Monday, Judge Robert Blackburn, federal judge for the District of Colorado, chose the second option. In United States v. Fricuso, Judge Blackburn decided that it did not violate the Fricosu’s Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination to order her to decrypt her laptop hard drive.
Through protests from the defense that this order violates a defendant’s rights, and even an amicus brief from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in support of Miss Fricosu, Judge Blackburn decided what could be a dangerous legal precedent on Fifth Amendment rights in the digital age.
From that brief:
“The government makes an aggressive argument here that may have far-reaching consequences for all encryption users. Fricosu will be made a witness against herself if she is forced to supply information that will give prosecutors access to files they speculate will be helpful to their case but cannot identify with any specificity…”
Blackburn ruled that the Fifth Amendment posed no barrier to his decryption order. The Fifth Amendment says that nobody may be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” which has become known as the right to avoid self-incrimination. (Read the entire 10-page opinion here)
“I find and conclude that the Fifth Amendment is not implicated by requiring production of the unencrypted contents of the Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop computer,”
Fricosu has declined to decrypt a laptop encrypted with Symantec’s PGP Desktop. Defense counsel Phil Dubois, who once represented Phil Zimmermann, PGP’s creator, is now fighting in the federal courts over encryption again.
“I hope to get a stay of execution of this order so we can file an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals … I think it’s a matter of national importance. It should not be treated as though it’s just another day in Fourth Amendment litigation.”
– Phil Dubois
Fricosu actually may not even be able to decrypt the laptop at all. “If that’s the case, then we’ll report that fact to the court, and the law is fairly clear that people cannot be punished for failure to do things they are unable to do,” said Dubois.
The U.S. Department of Justice argued, as CNET reported last summer, that Americans’ Fifth Amendment right to remain silent doesn’t apply to their encryption passwords. To the U.S. Justice Department, the requested court order represents a simple extension of prosecutors’ long-standing ability to assemble information that could become evidence during a trial. Justice claims that:
“Public interests will be harmed absent requiring defendants to make available unencrypted contents in circumstances like these. Failing to compel Ms. Fricosu amounts to a concession to her and potential criminals (be it in child exploitation, national security, terrorism, financial crimes or drug trafficking cases) that encrypting all inculpatory digital evidence will serve to defeat the efforts of law enforcement officers to obtain such evidence through judicially authorized search warrants, and thus make their prosecution impossible.”
Much of the discussion on this issue is about what analogy comes closest to this case. Prosecutors argue that PGP passphrases are like a defendant possessing a key to a safe filled with incriminating documents. That defendant can usually be legally compelled to hand over the key.
There are no decisions from the United States Supreme Court on this specific topic, but a number of decisions around the country from lower courts informed Blackburn’s decision. Here is a brief look at decisions from Blackburn’s order:
- United States v. Kirschner – Kirschner was indicted on receiving child pornography. Judge Borman of the Eastern District of Michigan granted the defendant’s Motion to Quash the government’s attempt to compel a password from Kirschner. From that order:
“In the instant case, even if the government provides Defendant with immunity with regard to the act of producing the password to the grand jury, that does not suffice to protect Defendant’s invocation of his Fifth Amendment privilege in response to questioning that would require him to reveal his password.”
- United States v. Boucher – Boucher was another child pornography case, this time from the District of Vermont, involving compelling a password from the defendant. In 2007, Magistrate Judge Jerome J. Niedermeier, ruled that such an action would violate Fifth Amendment protections:
“Compelling Boucher to enter the password forces him to produce evidence that could be used to incriminate him. Producing the password, as if it were a key to a locked container, forces Boucher to produce the contents of his laptop.”
Later, in an abrupt reversal, U.S. District Judge William Sessions ruled that Boucher did not have a Fifth Amendment right to keep the files encrypted after prosecutors narrowed their request, saying they only wanted Boucher to decrypt the contents of his hard drive before the grand jury, by typing in his password in front of them.
Boucher appealed to the Second Circuit, and the Appeals Court decided in favor of Boucher.
- Accord United States v. Gavegnano, 2009 WL 106370 (4th Cir. Jan. 16, 2009) – Where the “government independently proved that defendant was sole user and possessor of computer, defendant’s revelation of password not subject to suppression”
Conclusion of the Order
Blackburn granted the order in two ways. First, he invoked the All Writs Act which “enables the court to issues orders to effectuate an existing search warrant”.
Second, in a move of legal semantics, Fricosu is not ordered to reveal her password to the government. That has been ruled to violate her Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination. Instead, the government only requested that she use her password to decrypt the hard drive in question and then hand the decrypted hard drive over to the government.
THEREFORE, IT IS ORDERED as follows:
1. That the government’s Application Under the All Writs Act Requiring Defendant Fricosu To Assist in the Execution of Previously Issued Search Warrants [#111] filed May 6, 2011, is GRANTED:
2. That Ms. Fricosu’s Motion for Discovery – Seized Hard Drive [#101], filed April 27, 2011, is GRANTED;
3. That on or before February 6, 2012, the government SHALL PROVIDE counsel for defendant, Ramona Camelia Fricosu, with a copy of the hard drive of the Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop computer, serial number 98158161W;
4. That on or before February 21, 2012, defendant, Ramona Camelia Fricosu, SHALL PROVIDE counsel for the government in this case with an unencrypted copy of the hard drive of the Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop computer, serial number 98158161W; and
5. That the government SHALL BE precluded from using Ms. Fricosu’s act of production of the unencrypted contents of the computer’s hard drive against her in any prosecution.