New Jersey Supreme Court Says Cops Can Force You to Unlock Your Mobile Device

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A split New Jersey Supreme Court rules that law enforcement authorities may compel you to unlock your iPhone/ smartphone, you can’t push Fifth Amendment rights

Your rights under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution can’t come in the way during a police investigation says the new New Jersey Supreme Court verdict. A split New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that a criminal defendant can be compelled to reveal his smartphone passcode to the police and the investigators. The verdict rejected any bearing of the argument that doing so violates the right against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The 4:3 split judgment came in the matter of State vs Andrews case which was being heard by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The court had to decide whether the defendant Robert Andrews can be forced by the law enforcement agencies to disclose the personal identification numbers (PIN) and passwords for his lawfully-seized iPhones.

Andrews worked as an Essex County sheriff’s officer. The police accuse Andrews of being a suspected drug trafficker working under the garb of the Sheriff’s officer while secretly working with a Bloods street gang. Andrews is charged with multiple counts of official misconduct, hindering apprehension and obstruction for allegedly tipping off an alleged drug dealer, Quincy Lowery, that he was the target of a narcotics investigation before his arrest in 2015. The police say that they need access to Andrews 2 iPhones so that they can prove his drug-trafficking activities. The case went to a trial court where the judge ordered Andrews to provide the PIN and passwords for his lawfully seized iPhones that he allegedly used to aid the drug-trafficker. Andrews moved to the Appellate Division court against the verdict but got the same response.

The prosecutors argued that even if the passcodes were considered testimony, Andrews should be required to provide them under a body of case law known as the “foregone conclusion exception” to the Fifth Amendment.

Andrews then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court and said that disclosing his iPhone pin violates his right against self-incrimination guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the protections against self-incrimination afforded under New Jersey law.

The closely watched court ruling was delivered on Monday with a 4:3 majority. The ruling requires Robert Andrews to turn over passcodes from two iPhones to the law enforcement agencies. Justice Lee A. Solomon, writing for the majority, said that “the issue is one of surrender, not testimony, and that the foregone conclusion exemption to the Fifth Amendment thus applies.” The state knew of the text messages and had a right to them, he said.

“This was no fishing expedition,” Solomon wrote. The justice said the passcode itself had “minimal” value as evidence; it merely indicates ownership of the cellphone and the information that is stored on it. The passcode isn’t even a clue that a crime has been committed, Solomon said in his ruling.

Justices Solomon, Stuart Rabner, Anne M. Patterson, and Faustino Fernandez-Vina ruled in the favor of the law enforcement agencies while Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Barry T. Albin, and Walter F. Timpone dissented.

The ruling now lays precedence for similar cases in the United States where the local authorities and FBI often face a hard time unlocking the smartphones belonging to the defendants.

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