Does the Fifth Amendment Preclude Providing Your Password?

When confronted with this issue, courts have analogized electronic storage devices to closed containers, and have reasoned that accessing the information stored within an electronic storage device is akin to opening a closed container. Because individuals generally retain a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of closed containers, see United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 822-23 (1982), they also generally retain a reasonable expectation of privacy in data held within electronic storage devices. Accordingly, accessing information stored in a computer ordinarily will implicate the owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy in the information. See United States v. Barth, 26 F. Supp. 2d 929, 936-37 (W.D. Tex. 1998) (finding reasonable expectation of privacy in files stored on hard drive of personal computer); United States v. Reyes, 922 F. Supp. 818, 832-33 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (finding reasonable expectation of privacy in data stored in a pager); United States v. Lynch, 908 F. Supp. 284, 287 (D.V.I. 1995) (same); United States v. Chan, 830 F. Supp. 531, 535 (N.D. Cal. 1993) (same); United States v. Blas, 1990 WL 265179, at *21 (E.D. Wis. Dec. 4, 1990) (“[A]n individual has the same expectation of privacy in a pager, computer, or other electronic data storage and retrieval device as in a closed container.”).

Although courts have generally agreed that electronic storage devices can be analogized to closed containers, they have reached differing conclusions over whether each individual file stored on a computer or disk should be treated as a separate closed container. In two cases, the Fifth Circuit has determined that a computer disk containing multiple files is a single container for Fourth Amendment purposes. First, in United States v. Runyan, 275 F.3d 449, 464-65 (5th Cir. 2001), in which private parties had searched certain files and found child pornography, the Fifth Circuit held that the police did not exceed the scope of the private search when they examined additional files on any disk that had been, in part, privately searched. Analogizing a disk to a closed container, the court explained that “police do not exceed the private search when they examine more items within a closed container than did the private searchers.” Id. at 464. Second, in United States v. Slanina, 283 F.3d 670, 680 (5th Cir. 2002), the court held that when a warrantless search of a portion of a computer and zip disk had been justified, the defendant no longer retained any reasonable expectation of privacy in the remaining contents of the computer and disk, and thus a comprehensive search by law enforcement personnel did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Simply put, police have a very difficult job, however a suspect has no obligation to make their job easier. If confronted with a demand for your password/passphrase, simply request to speak to any attorney.

Darren Chaker

Cyber Law