State Supreme Court just made it easier to search cell phones

On Behalf of | Aug 24, 2020 | Criminal law |

We have come to rely on our cellphones as our primary mode of communication and so much more. From accessing the internet to finding a gas station to paying for goods and services, there is more personal data stored on those convenient handheld devices than anything else we own.

The state Supreme Court ruled in a closely watched case that law enforcement could compel defendants or suspects to provide the passcode to their device. Critics see the ruling as a violation of the Fourth (which protects the right of privacy) and Fifth Amendments (which protects the right against self-incrimination) of the U.S. Constitution and protection guaranteed by New Jersey common law.

The case

The ruling involves a former Essex County sheriff’s officer who was secretly working for a street gang that dealt drugs. The former officer faces several charges and did not dispute a search warrant law enforcement used. Instead, the plaintiff and his legal team argued that he should not have to give passcodes to his two phones to provide incriminating evidence and outline the nature of the relationship between the gang’s leader and the former officer. Law enforcement could even gain the information if its passcode-cracking software could open the device, but it could not.

The high court’s decision brought a strong dissent from Justice Jaynee LaVecchia: “We are at a crossroads in our law. Will we allow law enforcement — and our courts as their collaborators — to compel a defendant to disgorge undisclosed private thoughts — presumably memorized numbers or letters — so that the government can obtain access to encrypted smartphones? In my view, compelling the disclosure of a person’s mental thoughts is anathema to fundamental principles under our Constitution and state common law.”

The prosecution argued that the information was a foregone conclusion. The state knew of the messages and their nature, so there was no importance there. It was to prove that the defendant had ownership of the devices and the information they contained.”

Individuals must fight to protect their rights

Many facing criminal charges believe the system is working against them. This case would seem to only further that argument. However, it is also an essential reminder of how important it is to have knowledgeable legal guidance when dealing with law enforcement and the courts. A criminal law attorney can hold the other side accountable and help reduce overreach.