The 11th Circuit, Fricosu, and the 5th Amendment

Electronic Decryption Orders

As can be read in our previous posts (here and here), a case in Colorado has caught the attention of the nation in its implications on the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

This case touches on the Constitution, fraud, sex offenses, electronic freedoms, and many other incredibly important topics. Yesterday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals took up the topic in a separate case (US v. Doe) and disagreed with their own lower court’s mandate to supply unencrypted data for the prosecution. In Doe, the defendant was ordered to produce an unencrypted version of his hard drive(s). Doe refused to comply. From In RE: GRAND JURY SUBPOENA DUCES TECUM DATED MARCH 25, 2011:

We hold that Doe properly invoked the Fifth Amendment privilege. In response, the Government chose not give him the immunity the Fifth Amendment and 18 U.S.C. § 6002 mandate, and the district court acquiesced. Stripped of Fifth Amendment protection, Doe refused to produce the unencrypted contents of the hard drives. The refusal was justified, and the district court erred in adjudging him in civil contempt. The district court’s judgment is accordingly REVERSED.

Back Story

In Colorado, a defendant (Fricosu) may or may not have incriminating evidence on her laptop hard drive that was seized by authorities. The government asked for, and was granted, an order forcing Fricosu to produce a decrypted copy of that hard drive. Fricosu appealed, saying that doing so violates her 5th Amendment protections against self-incrimination. The appellate court refused to rule until the case was finished in the lower court.

The order forcing Fricosu to give over potentially incriminating evidence, and other similar orders from around the country, has troubling implications on the 5th Amendment in the new, digital world.

…and even further back…

In Fricosu, the presiding judge relied heavily upon the very limited precedents from around the country. Every one of these precedents were from child pornography cases where the courts didn’t seem to mind infringing on 5th Amendment protections, so long as sex offenders were the losers.

As with all history, equal protection exists for everybody, and infringing on one (hated) groups rights will eventually spill over onto the rest of the population.

Equal Protection

It may be hard to do, and sometimes even harder to stomach, but protecting the rights of the least popular citizens of any society is vital. This effort prevents [G]overnment from “taking a mile” for every inch of leeway given to it.

Kudos to the 11th Circuit for making this decision. Let us all hope that, regardless of coexisting immunity given to defendants, the 10th Circuit will follow suit and not allow its lower courts to be so cavalier with the 5th Amendment.

Update: Fricosu, The 10th Circuit, and the 5th Amendment

U.S. v. Fricosu

2/23/12 – As we previously discussed in this post, the government wants to force the defendant in the above-titled case to turn over an unencrypted hard drive that may or may not have incriminating evidence in it. The district judge granted the governments motion to force the defendant to supply the hard drive. This decision was appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, who refused to rule.

Note: Demanding an actual password violates the 5th Amendment protections. The presiding judge in Colorado side-stepped this issue by not requiring Fricosu to give up her password but, instead, requiring her to produce the decrypted hard drive by using her password.

Because the appeals court chose to let the case run its course in the lower court before allowing the issue here to be raised on appeal, the ruling stands and Fricosu has until Monday to turn over the unencrypted version (read: a copy) of her laptop hard drive.

The Future

This case has frightening implications on the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The process will get rocky. Fricosu can refuse to produce the hard drive1 and face contempt charges,2, or she can comply and face conviction if the incriminating material that the prosecution believes is on the hard drive is actually there.

If she complies and is convicted3, only then can she appeal her conviction to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge the order to produce the hard drive that directly led to her conviction.

Updates will be posted as they come in!

  1. If she is able to. Her defense attorney says she may not have the capabilities to even comply with the order []
  2. Under rule 42 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure []
  3. Where that conviction is predicated primarily upon the evidence from the unencrypted hard drive []