More on Encryption, the Fifth Amendment, and the "Foregone Conclusion" Exception:
My Friday post on the Fifth Amendment and encryption discussing the Boucher case led to a very long and interesting comment thread, including several comments from readers who thought it clearly wrong to say that Boucher could be required to enter in the password even if no one doubted that he knew it. The basic argument was that entering in the password had a testimonial aspect to it, and the government could never compel someone to take those steps in a way that would hurt him in a criminal case — in Boucher, by leading the police back to the evidence on the hard drive.

  In this post, I want to explain why I tend to disagree. It's my understanding that if the government already knows that Boucher has the password, having him enter it in generally does not implicate the Fifth Amendment privilege. Just to be extra clear, I'm not saying that I like the law this way, or that this is my personal theory of what the Fifth Amendment should mean. Rather, I'm saying that I think this is the correct result under existing caselaw. (So if you disagree, it's probably best to make your arguments in terms of cases, not Universal Principles of Justice.)

  The key precedent here is Fisher v. United States, 425 U.S. 391 (1976), in which the Supreme Court considered whether the government could subpoena records involving the preparation of a person's taxes by his accountant over a three year period from the suspect himself, who was suspected of tax fraud. The Court concluded that the Fifth Amendment did not bar such a subpoena, even though responding to the subpoena would indicate the person's knowledge and control of the records and even though the government wanted to use the records to prove his guilt for tax fraud. Here's why:
  Surely the Government is in no way relying on the "truthtelling" of the taxpayer to prove the existence of or his access to the documents. 8 Wigmore § 2264, p. 380. The existence and location of the papers are a foregone conclusion, and the taxpayer adds little or nothing to the sum total of the Government's information by conceding that he, in fact, has the papers. Under these circumstances, by enforcement of the summons, "no constitutional rights are touched. The question is not of testimony, but of surrender." In re Harris, 221 U. S. 274, 279 (1911).
  When an accused is required to submit a handwriting exemplar, he admits his ability to write and impliedly asserts that the exemplar is his writing. But in common experience, the first would be a near truism, and the latter self-evident. In any event, although the exemplar may be incriminating to the accused and although he is compelled to furnish it, his Fifth Amendment privilege is not violated, because nothing he has said or done is deemed to be sufficiently testimonial for purposes of the privilege.
  Under Fisher, courts have to make a judgment call about how much the testimonial component of the act of production will really add to the government's case. If the subpoena makes the target state some important fact that the government didn't know, then it's unconstitutional. See, e.g., United States v. Hubbell, 530 U.S. 27, 44-45 (2000), in which the government made the target collect his records, go through them, and identify which of the records revealed his crimes. On the other hand, if the subpoena makes the target testify about something that the government basically knows already, or is pretty unimportant, or could find out another way, then it's not unconstitutional. This is a fact-intensive test, requiring close attention to exactly what the government knows and what is relevant to their case.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Encryption, the Fifth Amendment, and the "Foregone Conclusion" Exception:
  2. Magistrate Judge Finds Fifth Amendment Right Not to Enter Encryption Passphrase: