In a precedential ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals this week upheld a lower court’s ruling holding a criminal defendant in contempt for refusing to decrypt two external hard drives that were seized during a child pornography investigation.
During the investigation, the government seized the defendants’ property, including two iPhones, a MacBook Pro and two external hard drives following a search of his home. All of the devices were password protected. U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents were able to unlock the MacBook Pro, but were unable to decrypt the external hard drives, or thousands of images and videos on one of the iPhones.
A magistrate judge ordered the defendant under the All Writs Act to decrypt the devices. The defendant refused, alleging a violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The magistrate denied the motion to quash the order stating that since the government possessed the devices and had evidence that alleged they contained child pornography, decrypting them wouldn’t rise to the level of testimony protected by the Fifth Amendment.
The defendant unlocked the iPhone, which contained child pornography, but he claimed he couldn’t remember the passwords for the external hard drives. The lower court held him in contempt and the Third Circuit agreed. It held that the decryption order was a necessary and appropriate means for effectuating the initial search warrant and did not violate the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.
It will be interesting to see if he will be able to remember those passwords now.