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What qualifies as self-incrimination?

The criminal justice system in the United States is founded on a number of legal principles. Many of these principles are designed to maintain fairness and impartiality during trials, and are strengthened by the legal rights designated for defendants. Without these protections, criminal suspects could be subject to unfair police action or wrongful conviction on a regular basis.

One of the primary rights granted to citizens is described by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and may become an important aspect of criminal defense. This amendment protects individuals against self-incrimination, which means that a person cannot be required to produce testimony or evidence that would be indicative of guilt.

On a very basic level, the terms of the Fifth Amendment seem quite simple. However, in certain cases, it might not be quite as easy to provide a clear definition of what amounts to self-incrimination. An ongoing case in Massachusetts is testing this very question. In this case, a man accused of forgery in connection with mortgage fraud has been asked to decrypt his computer files, because law enforcement has not been able to do so.

The government's request for the man to decrypt his computer has created a legal controversy. A superior court judge determined that requiring the man to provide decryption amounts to self-incrimination, since authorities hope that action would provide them with the evidence they need for conviction. The matter has been appealed all the way to the state's supreme court.

In an earlier decision, a superior court judge, who ruled in favor of the defendant, determined that decrypting data is essentially like forcing someone to decode a writing that has a hidden meeting. This action has previously been considered unconstitutional.

The outcome of this case -- and any similar legal issues -- may be important for Washington residents to understand. Even though this specific case is taking place on the opposite side of the country, Courthouse News Service indicates that similar legal issues have appeared throughout the country. As digital encrypted data becomes more common in criminal cases, the law will have to provide answers to basic questions about the limitations of evidence collection.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Forced Decryption Fought as Self-Incrimination," Jack Bouboushian, Nov. 1, 2013

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