Utah Supreme Court says suspects can refuse to hand over phone passwords to the police

 Utah’s Supreme Court has found that criminal suspects have the constitutional right not to provide their phone’s password to the police because it would violate their Fifth Amendment privilege. The ruling joins other opinions on the subject from state Supreme Courts, some of it conflicting. The Supreme Court has not considered this particular scenario to date and could well take up this case.

Utah’s state Supreme Court has upheld a court of appeals ruling, finding in the State v. Valdez that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination allows criminal suspects to refuse to provide the passwords to their phones to police.

The state’s top court unanimously ruled in favor of Alfonso Valdez, who had been arrested for kidnapping and assaulting his ex-girlfriend. When he was arrested, the police found a cell phone in his pocket and obtained a search warrant for its contents. However they were unable to crack the password and Valdez refused to provide it when asked. The police were never able to search the phone.

At his trial, the state argued that Valdez’s refusal and the police’s inability to search the phone undermined one of his defenses. He was convicted in the jury trial, which was reversed by the court of appeals that agreed Valdez had a right under the Fifth Amendment to refuse to provide his passcode, and that the state violated that right when it used his refusal against him at trial. The court reversed Valdez’s conviction and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

The state Supreme Court also noted that the case raises important questions about how the Fifth Amendment extends to law enforcement efforts to unlock smartphones. The justices noted, as an example, law enforcement obtaining an order to compel a suspect to provide an unlocked device, thus circumventing the necessity of having them disclose the password.

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