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Top Indiana Court Holds Police Can’t Force Suspects to Unlock Phone

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a woman accused of stalking and harassment should not have been held in contempt for refusing to unlock her phone for law enforcement officials.

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a woman accused of stalking and harassment should not have been held in contempt for refusing to unlock her phone for law enforcement officials.

In a split 3-2 ruling, the state’s highest court found that forcing Katelin Eunjoo Seo to unlock her phone as part of a criminal investigation would violate her constitutional right against self-incrimination.

“To allow the state, on these facts, to force Seo to unlock her iPhone for law enforcement would tip the scales too far in the state’s favor, resulting in a seismic erosion of the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination. This we will not do,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the majority.

The case dates back to July 2017, when Seo approached the Hamilton County Sherriff’s Department claiming to be a victim of sexual assault by a man referred to as D.S. in court documents.

After the department begin looking into the allegations, they turned their focus back to Seo, which culminated in authorities bringing harassment and stalking charges against her. The charges allege Seo had sent harassing messages to D.S. and was in violation of an order that prevented her from contacting him.

As part of the investigation, law enforcement sought to unlock an iPhone taken from Seo. She was found in contempt by the trial court in September 2017 because she refused to unlock the phone.

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in Seo’s favor in August 2018, finding that she should not be compelled to open the phone.

“The Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination reflects our nation’s fundamental principles. These principles should not be altered by the advance of technology,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote in the appeals court’s 43-page majority opinion.

The state appealed and the case went before the Indiana Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in April 2019.

During those arguments, Indiana reiterated its position that Seo was only asked by court order to unlock her phone and that the files on it could be treated similarly to objects found in a home during a search backed by a warrant.

However, the majority of the Indiana Supreme Court judges saw things differently in Tuesday’s ruling.  

“By unlocking her smartphone, Seo would provide law enforcement with information it does not already know, which the state could then use in its prosecution against her,” Chief Justice Rush wrote. “The Fifth Amendment’s protection from compelled self-incrimination prohibits this result.”

Rush was joined in the majority by Justices Steven David and Christopher Goff.

The two dissenting judges, Justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter, argued that the case is moot because Seo’s criminal charges were dismissed after she pleaded guilty to one count of stalking.

“We must ask whether this court should use a federally moot case to decide an important question of federal constitutional law. The answer must be no,” Massa wrote in the dissent.

Seo was represented by attorney William Webster with Webster & Garino and was also backed by the ALCU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in support of Seo during proceedings.

EFF senior staff attorney Andrew Crocker applauded the ruling in a statement Tuesday.

“We're pleased that the court recognized that when the police try to force a user to unlock her phone it is a modern form of compelled self-incrimination prohibited by the Fifth Amendment. Our phones contain an indelible record of our private, personal lives, and we should not be at the mercy of the state's efforts to force us to turn over their contents,” Crocker said.

Seo's attorney, Webster, also said he was pleased with the outcome.

 "Today the Indiana Supreme Court found that forcing individuals to unlock electronic devices violates their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This is a landmark case for civil liberties and individual privacy rights,” he said.

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