Recently the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that under certain circumstances, a court may compel a criminal defendant to provide the password to encrypted digital evidence without violating the defendant’s constitutional rights. This is an increasingly prevalent issue that has divided courts across the country and may be presented to the United States Supreme Court for review soon.
Leon Gelfgatt was indicted in 2010 for allegedly operating a mortgage fraud scheme that fraudulently collected more than $13 million. During the investigation, Massachusetts state troopers seized four computers, all of which were protected by encryption software that Gelfgatt refused to remove. Lawyers for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts filed a motion in Superior Court asking the court to compel Gelfgatt to enter the password for his encryption software so that law enforcement could review the contents. The Superior Court denied the motion, stating that the Commonwealth was asking for the defendant’s assistance in accessing potentially incriminating evidence.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling and held that police could compel Gelfgatt to decrypt his files, because he told investigators that the computer belonged to him and he had the encryption key. The majority opinion reasoned that Gelfgatt’s disclosure to investigators that he had the password to access the encrypted materials was sufficient to satisfy the “foregone conclusion” exception to the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The court did not specify if Gelfgatt would have been compelled to decrypt the computers if he did not tell law enforcement that he owned the computers and had the ability to decrypt them, which may limit the reach of this opinion.
In a strong dissenting opinion, two justices found compelling a criminal defendant to decrypt the files is the functional equivalent to forced self-incrimination.
After the decision, one of Gelfgatt’s lawyers indicated that they planned to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet considered the issue that has divided jurisdictions across the country. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a man under criminal investigation could not be compelled to decrypt his computer hard drives for the government without a showing by the government of specific knowledge about the contents of the hard drive, an opinion referred to by the dissenting opinion in this case.
In a time when law enforcement is increasingly relying on digital evidence in building cases against criminal defendants, issues regarding encryption and password protected materials will continue to arise. We hope the Supreme Court will grant an appeal and clarify that law enforcement cannot compel criminal defendants to decrypt files without violating the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.