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Can law enforcement make you unlock your mobile phone?

Posted by Omar Abdelghany | Jan 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

Technology is rapidly changing the way criminal cases are investigated and prosecuted in Florida. The law surrounding criminal cases isn't known for evolving quickly and it certainly struggles to keep up with ever-changing technology. In fact, changes in technology are forcing courts to rethink how they define centuries-old legal theories. Consider a question posed in a recent Florida criminal case: can the police compel you to give up the password to your phone, or is that coerced testimony barred by the constitution?

Can the police force you to give up the password to your phone?

For now, the answer to that question appears to be “maybe.” The confusion is based on the fact that two different Florida appellate courts have each decided the issue differently. This creates a situation where the Florida Supreme Court – and potentially, the United State Supreme Court – may have to clear up the dispute.

The issue came up most recently in the case G.A.Q.L. vs. Florida. The plaintiff in the case is identified only by initials because he was a minor at the time of his arrest. In G.A.Q.L, the minor was driving a vehicle recklessly while under the influence of alcohol. The minor eventually wrecked his vehicle, and one of his passengers died as a result of the impact. After the crash, the minor's blood alcohol concentration registered a .086, which is over four times the legal limit for minors.

The minor and another passenger survived, and the passenger informed law enforcement that she and the minor had been communicating by text messages earlier that day. The police wanted those texts as evidence and obtained a warrant for the phone as well as well as a court order demanding the minor give up his password.

The minor filed a motion to overturn the order, making the argument that in this case handing over the password was effectively testifying against himself. In other words, law enforcement's attempts to force him to give up the password is no different than an attempt on their part to make him answer questions against his will. The court agreed, holding that divulging a password was more than just submitting information, it was effectively forcing the minor to go inside his mind and be interrogated against his will.

This ruling is in direct conflict with another case, called State vs. Stahl. In Stahl, a defendant refused to hand over the passcode to his locked phone which was believed to have evidence that he had photographed women illegally. With these two rulings in conflict, it is unclear how this issue will ultimately be decided.

Charged with a crime? You need a strong advocate.

The minor is the case above was only able to fight back and protect his constitutional right against self-incrimination thanks to the work of his criminal defense attorney. If you have been charged with a crime in the Tampa area, attorney Omar Abdelghany can be that type of advocate for you. Contact the OA Law Firm today for your free consultation.

About the Author

Omar Abdelghany

Omar Abdelghany is a criminal defense attorney practicing in Tampa Bay, Florida and the surrounding area. He graduated cum laude from California Western School of Law in San Diego, California. He was admitted into the Florida Bar in 2013 and is also licensed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

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