Florida Courts Split on Right of Criminal Suspect to Withhold iPhone Passcode

Two Florida district courts have reached clashing conclusions on whether a suspect in a criminal case can invoke the Fifth Amendment to withhold their iPhone passcode from law enforcement. In the older case, State of Florida v. Stahl, the court ruled that a criminal suspect does not have this right under the Constitution. (This case involved a man who allegedly took “upskirt” photos of women.) In the more recent case, G.A.Q.L. v. State of Florida, the Fourth District of Florida reviewed a teenager’s refusal to provide his passcode to law enforcement after he was involved in a fatal drunk driving crash.

As a result of the divergent decisions, the Florida Supreme Court may need to weigh this issue. Federal courts generally have ruled in favor of suspects in these situations. While their precedents would not be binding on a state supreme court, their reasoning might be relevant to the court’s analysis.

In this case, the court was not persuaded by the government’s position that the foregone conclusion exception to the Fifth Amendment applied. This exemption allows police and prosecutors to gain access to evidence that would be protected by the Fifth Amendment if they already know what the evidence will tell them. Prosecutors argued that evidence from another teenager involved in the crash and her iPhone told them what to expect from the contents of the suspect’s iPhone. However, the court felt that revealing the passcode would equate to giving self-incriminating testimony.

Some observers questioned why law enforcement needed to ask the suspect for the passcode. It might have been equally effective to get the contents of the suspect’s messages and images from the relevant providers, which would not implicate constitutional protections.

Photo Credit:  Anna Hoychuk / Shutterstock.com