Encryption and the Fifth Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination

I blogged a lot about this topic a few years ago when the Boucher case was pending; although an appeal was filed in that case in the First Circuit, the appeal was dropped so the appellate court never decided it. In any event, several readers point me to a new decision on the topic, United States v. Fricosu, out of the District of Colorado.

Based on a quick read of the opinion, the legal analysis in the Fricosu opinion is not a model of clarity. But it strikes me as a replay of the district court decision in Boucher: The Court ends up ordering the defendant to decrypt the hard drive, but only because the court made a factual finding that in this specific case, the government already knew the information that could be incriminating — and as a result, was a “foregone conclusion” that dissipated the Fifth Amendment privilege.

If I’m reading Fricosu correctly, the Court is not saying that there is no Fifth Amendment privilege against being forced to divulge a password. Rather, the Court is saying that the Fifth Amendment privilege can’t be asserted in a specific case where it is known based on the facts of the case that the computer belongs to the suspect and the suspect knows the password. Because the only incriminating message of being forced to decrypt the password — that the suspect has control over the computer — is already known, it is a “foregone conclusion” and the Fifth Amendment privilege cannot block the government’s application.

UPDATE: A reader asks what happens if a person refuses to comply with the order or claims to have forgotten the password. Here’s the Second Circuit’s summary of the law in In re Weiss, 703 F.2d 653 (2d. Cir. 1983):

Testimonial obduracy by a witness who has been ordered by the court to answer questions may take any of a number of forms. The witness may refuse categorically to answer. Or he may respond in a way that avoids providing information, as, for example, by denying memory of the events under inquiry, denying acquaintance with targets of the inquiry, or denying knowledge of facts sought to be elicited. Or he may purport to state informative facts in response to the questions while in fact testifying falsely.

Any of these three forms of obduracy may be met with the imposition of one or more judicial or governmental sanctions. For example, when the witness has refused to answer questions, he may be adjudged in civil contempt and ordered to answer, e.g., Shillitani v. United States, supra, 384 U.S. at 370, 86 S.Ct. at 1535; In re Grand Jury Investigation of Giancana, 352 F.2d 921 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 959, 86 S.Ct. 437, 15 L.Ed.2d 362 (1965); or he may be adjudged in criminal contempt and punished for his past failure to answer, e.g., Brown v. United States, 356 U.S. 148, 78 S.Ct. 622, 2 L.Ed.2d 589 (1958). In some cases both coercive and punitive sanctions have been imposed. See, e.g., Yates v. United States, 355 U.S. 66, 74, 78 S.Ct. 128, 133, 2 L.Ed.2d 95 (1957); United States v. Petito, 671 F.2d 68 (2d Cir.1982); In re Irving, supra.

If the witness has responded falsely to the questions propounded, he may be subject to prosecution for a criminal offense in violation of, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 1621 (perjury), or 18 U.S.C. § 1623 (false declarations before grand jury or court). If the witness’s false testimony has obstructed the court in 663*663 the performance of its duty, the witness may be met with sanctions for civil contempt, see Ex parte Hudgings, 249 U.S. 378, 383, 39 S.Ct. 337, 339, 63 L.Ed. 656 (1919), or criminal contempt, see In re Michael, 326 U.S. 224, 227-29, 66 S.Ct. 78, 79-80, 90 L.Ed. 30 (1945).

The middle category of testimonial obduracy, i.e., the witness’s equivocal responses or disclaimers of knowledge or memory, has also been dealt with as contemptuous conduct, warranting sanctions that were coercive, punitive, or both. It has long been the practice of courts viewing such testimony as false and intentionally evasive, and as a sham or subterfuge that purposely avoids giving responsive answers, to ignore the form of the response and treat the witness as having refused to answer. See, e.g., In re Schulman, 167 F. 237 (S.D.N.Y.1909), aff’d, 177 F. 191 (2d Cir.1910); United States v. Appel, 211 F. 495 (S.D.N.Y.1913); United States v. McGovern, 60 F.2d 880, 889 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 287 U.S. 650, 53 S.Ct. 96, 77 L.Ed. 561 (1932); Schleier v. United States, 72 F.2d 414 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 293 U.S. 607, 55 S.Ct. 123, 79 L.Ed. 697 (1934); In re Eskay, 122 F.2d 819 (3d Cir.1941); Howard v. United States, 182 F.2d 908 (8th Cir.), vacated and remanded as moot, 340 U.S. 898, 71 S.Ct. 278, 95 L.Ed. 651 (1950); Richardson v. United States, 273 F.2d 144 (8th Cir.1959); Martin-Trigona v. Gouletas, 634 F.2d 354, 357-59 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1025, 101 S.Ct. 593, 66 L.Ed.2d 486 (1980); In re Battaglia, supra, 653 F.2d at 422; In re Bongiorno, supra.

In In re Schulman, for example, the district court found that a bankrupt’s repeated responses of “I don’t remember” and “What do you mean?” to questions concerning the disposition of his assets in the six months preceding his declaration of bankruptcy were disingenuous and evasive. The court thus construed the responses as refusals to answer and imposed a combination of civil and criminal contempt sanctions by ordering the witness imprisoned for six months, with the proviso that if the witness chose, after five days, to provide nonevasive answers, he would be released from prison. This Court affirmed, stating as follows:

The testimony as it appears in the record evinces a deliberate purpose to conceal the truth and prevent the trustee from becoming possessed of facts which would lead to a recovery of the missing property. The witness was being asked regarding transactions directly within his knowledge and facts which he must have known. When, therefore, he answered repeatedly “I don’t remember,” it is obvious that he was deliberately withholding information to which the trustee was entitled. In effect his attitude was one of defiance. He did not affirmatively tell the referee that he refused to disclose the facts which would enable the trustee to follow the property, although these facts were well known to him, but his conduct produced the same result as if he had stated his purpose openly.

177 F. at 193.