When we talk about criminal defense in both federal and New Jersey cases, we often focus on the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure by the government. Indeed, the Fourth Amendment provides citizens with powerful and important protections against the government when it tries to overreach its authority. But this is not the only protection provided by the Constitution to suspects in criminal cases.
The Fifth Amendment expressly grants a number of rights, including the prohibition on double jeopardy. Recently a federal court upheld the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination. The actual text of the amendment declares that no one can be "compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."
In this case the police suspected that the suspect had incriminating evidence on his computer. But the files on the suspect's computer were encrypted and could only be accessed if the suspect unlocked or decrypted his computer hard drive.
The federal courts have not always come down on the same side of this issue. But this court of appeals found that while investigators may be able to require a suspect to do something like unlock a safe-deposit box, the encryption is different in that it requires the suspect to use the "contents of his own mind." This distinction apparently puts the decryption under the protections of the Fifth Amendment's prohibition from requiring a suspect to act as a witness against himself.
Source: Wall Street Journal, "Court Ruling Protects Suspect's Hard Drives," Joe Palazzolo, Feb. 24, 2012