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A Key New Case Allows Owner’s to Assert the Fifth for Their Smartphones

You have probably heard the phrase, “I plead the Fifth”, at some point in your life, whether it be on a movie, television, or just in everyday talk. But what does this mean? How far does it extend? On August 21, 2018, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided a case of first impression1 in which the protection of the Fifth Amendment was greatly increased and protected citizens from making incriminating statements by what the contents of their smartphone “says”! This blog covers what you need to know in this the development of the Fifth Amendment to avoid your smart phone speaking for you and admitting to a crime.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals from self-incrimination.2 In a nutshell, this means that a government actor, such as a police officer, cannot force an individual to admit that he or she committed a crime if that individual does not wish to make a statement or confession. He or she can remain silent, and this is not an admission of guilt. The Fifth Amendment is a powerful tool for criminal defendants, and the State of Indiana just increased the constitutional power of this tool given technological developments in Katelin Eunjoo Seo v. State of Indiana. In Seo v. State, the Defendant was ordered by the trial court to unlock her smartphone by entering her passcode so that the prosecution could access files on the smartphone, such as text messages. She refused, and an appeal ensued.

On appeal, the State argued that the Defendant should be ordered to enter her passcode because it was a “foregone conclusion” that Defendant knew the passcode to her smartphone; and therefore, the Fifth Amendment protection is inapplicable. On the other hand, the defendant’s appellate counsel argued something quite different–that an individual and their smartphone are so interconnected that ordering the Defendant to provide the passcode would require her to disclose “the contents of her mind”, which is basically speaking as in words and a violation of the Fifth Amendment. The Court of Appeals agreed with the defense; and in its significant decision, the Court held that requiring an individual to provide their passcode to their smartphone is a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against being forced to make incriminating statements. However, the Court noted that there are certainly emergency situations and scenarios where requiring the passcode to a smartphone would not constitute violation of the Fifth Amendment.

This case has the potential to dramatically change the legal landscape of criminal proceedings, both at the trial and appellate court levels. Technology and all of its implications are going to continue to change our legal framework. Knowing the status of developments in the law is the key to avoiding criminal liability, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. In short, knowing this development in the law may keep you from unwittingly admitting to a crime, being charged, convicted, and imprisoned—all by providing your passcode and not asserting the Fifth for your smartphone. This blog post on a key new case was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal defense cases and appeals of criminal convictions throughout the state. Knowing the law is a key to be an engaged citizen. Having criminal defense counsel current on the latest developments in law provides you with the best criminal defense. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.

  1. Katelin Eunjoo Seo v. State of Indiana, 29A05-1710-CR-2466 (Ind.Ct.App. 2018) (August 21, 2018). A case of first impression is one that has never been decided before.
  2. This is applicable to the states and its citizens through the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.

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Dixon & Moseley, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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