Judge forces defendant to decrypt laptop, fuels debate over Fifth Amendment rights

A judge in Colorado yesterday ordered a defendant to decrypt her laptop's hard drive at the prosecution's request, adding new fire to the ongoing debate surrounding consumer technology and the Fifth Amendment. The defendant, Ramona Fricosu, is facing charges of bank fraud, stemming from a federal investigation launched in 2010. As part of this investigation, federal authorities used a search warrant to seize her Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop. Fricosu's legal team had previously refused to decrypt the computer, on the grounds that doing so would violate her Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination. On Monday, though, US District Judge Robert Blackburn ruled against the defendant, arguing that the prosecution retained the right to access her device, as stipulated under the All Writs Act -- a law that requires mobile operators to comply with federal surveillance.

"I conclude that the Fifth Amendment is not implicated by requiring production of the unencrypted contents of the Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop computer," Blackburn wrote, adding that there was strong evidence to suggest that Fricosu's computer contained information pertinent to the case. Fricosu's lawyer, Phil Dubois, is hoping to obtain a stay on the ruling, in the hopes of taking the case to an appeals court. "I think it's a matter of national importance," Dubois explained. "It should not be treated as though it's just another day in Fourth Amendment litigation." It remains to be seen whether Dubois succeeds in his appeal, though civil libertarians are already paying close attention to the case, since the US Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the matter.