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Cell phone passcodes are protected, Utah court rules

More than 225,000 Apple iPhone accounts hacked
Posted at 10:54 AM, Feb 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-13 12:54:03-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Court of Appeals has ruled that cell phone passcodes are protected under the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In a unanimous ruling published Saturday, the state's top appeals court overturned a man's conviction on kidnapping, robbery and aggravated assault based on Weber County prosecutors inferring guilt before a jury when Alfonso Margo Valdez refused to provide police with his passcode.

"In sum, Valdez had a Fifth Amendment right to refuse to provide the swipe code to investigating officers, and during trial the State invited the jury to draw an inference of guilt from Valdez’s silence. This action was no 'mere mention' of Valdez’s decision to withhold the swipe code," Judge Ryan Harris wrote. "In this context, the State’s evidentiary use of Valdez’s refusal to provide the swipe code violated Valdez’s rights under the Fifth Amendment, and the trial court erred by allowing such evidence to come in and by allowing the State to use it in this manner."

The Utah Attorney General's Office, representing Weber County prosecutors, had tried to argue it was harmless. The three-judge panel sent the case back to a lower court for consideration of a new trial.

The Utah Court of Appeals said because this specific case centers around a passcode, it would not weigh in on the legality of biometrics (like a fingerprint or facial recognition) on phones. Other courts around the country have upheld the refusal to provide a phone passcode, but have had mixed rulings on biometrics.

The ruling by the state's top appeals court can be applied to other cases involving data privacy.

Read the ruling here: