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Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules defendants cannot be compelled to provide computer passwords
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Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules defendants cannot be compelled to provide computer passwords

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled on Wednesday that defendants cannot be compelled to provide the passwords of their computers to law enforcement officials. The court ruled that this compulsion violates the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania brought distribution of child pornography charges against the appellant. The Office of the Attorney General executed a search warrant at appellant’s home after his IP address was linked to child pornography videos and a file-sharing network. Appellant admitted to watching child pornography, and law enforcement officials lawfully seized his computer. However, appellant refused to provide the password to the computer.

The Fifth Amendment protects communication by defendants that is “testimonial.” The trial court reasoned that giving up a computer password is an act of production and therefore, not testimonial. The trial court also reasoned that an exception applies; the exception states the government must establish its knowledge of (1) the existence of the evidence demanded, (2) the possession and control of the evidence by the defendant and (3) the authenticity of the evidence. Since the appellant admitted to watching child pornography videos and that he is the sole owner of the computer, the trial court held that the exception applied. The Superior Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the decision. The court held that revealing a password is “testimonial in nature” because it calls for a defendant to reveal the “contents of their own mind.” The court further stated that revealing one’s password could lead to self-incrimination, which is privileged under the Fifth Amendment.