Massachusetts’ top court ruled, in a 5-2 decision on Wednesday, that a criminal suspect can be ordered to decrypt his seized computer.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (MSJC) ruling only applies to the state. Various other courts at the state and federal level have disagreed as to whether being forced to type in a decryption password is a violation of the Fifth Amendment right to protect against self-incrimination and its state equivalents (such as Article Twelve of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights). For example, more than two years ago, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a defendant was not obliged to decrypt his hard drive, as doing so would violate his Fifth Amendment rights. However, that ruling only took effect in the 11th Circuit, which covers parts of the southeastern United States. Just last year, a federal judge refused to force a Wisconsin child pornography suspect to decrypt his laptop. Overall, cases involving decryption are still relatively new and rare. The first known one only dates back to 2007.
Privacy advocates lamented the MSJC’s new ruling, disagreeing with the court’s judgment that an exception to the Fifth Amendment rule, such as a “foregone conclusion,” applies here.
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