Had a great time hosting This Week in Law Episode 150, which we recorded on February 24. (Thanks to Denise Howell for handing over the hosting reins while she was off for the week.) It was a really fun conversation with three very smart panelists — Mike Godwin, Greg Sergienko and Jonathan Frieden. We talked about copyright and free speech, encryption and the Fifth Amendment, and the state of internet privacy.
If you’re not a regular listener or viewer of This Week in Law, I hope you’ll add it to your media diet. I’m on just about every week (sometimes I’m even referred to as a co-host of the show). We record Fridays at 1pm Central (that’s 11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern). The live stream is at http://live.twit.tv and the page with all the past episodes and various subscription options is http://twit.tv/twil.
If I left my coat in a taxi that was later impounded because, unknown to me, the driver was transporting heroin in the trunk, would I be left out in the cold?
People who used Megaupload to lawfully store and transfer files are rightfully upset that their stuff is unavailable after last week’s raid. Some groups in other countries say they are going to sue the U.S. government. Would a lawsuit like that get anywhere in a U.S. court?
The Fifth Amendment — best known for its privilege against self-incrimination — says that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation”. (You can impress your legally-trained friends at parties by confidently and casually referring to the Takings Clause.) Does the Takings Clause give innocent Megaupload users a right to be paid the value of the files they are being deprived of while the feds use the servers on which those files are stored to prove their case against Kim Dotcom and company?
Back in 2008, Ilya Somin and Orin Kerr had a conversation on the Volokh Conspiracy discussing this question of whether the Fifth Amendment protects innocent third parties who lose property in a criminal investigation. If you read that commentary you will see that a case over the Megaupload takedown might be tough for a number of esoteric reasons, not the least of which is Supreme Court precedent.
There are some face-value problems with a case like this as well. Has the government taken the property for a “public use”? One could argue that the reason the servers (including the innocent content) were seized was for the so-called public good of going after piracy. But then the innocent content is not being “used” in connection with the prosecution — it just happens to be there.
I do not pretend to know the answers to this inquiry, and I’m relying on sharper Constitutional minds than mine to leave some good comments. (If you know Ilya Somin or Orin Kerr, send them a link to this post!) All I know is that it does not seem fair that users of the cloud should so easily be deprived in the name of law enforcement.
Pursuant to a warrant, federal agents seized defendant’s laptop from her home. When investigators turned it on, they saw the hard drive’s contents were encrypted using PGP Desktop. Defendant would not voluntarily turn over the password to decrypt the drive, so the Government filed an application under the All Writs Act to require defendant to “assist” in the execution of the search warrant. Defendant objected, asserting her privilege against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
The court rejected defendant’s arguments, granted the Government’s application and ordered defendant to provide an unencrypted copy of the hard drive. It found that the situation did not implicate defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.
The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be compelled in any
criminal case to be a witness against himself. For the most part, this privilege only covers testimony. But an act that implicitly communicates a statement of fact may be within the purview of the privilege as well. For example, producing a document (or electronic data, for that matter) is an acknowledgment that the material:
is in the possession or control of the producer
is authentic (i.e., is what it purports to be)
The court held that defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights were not implicated because providing an unencrypted copy of the hard drive did not serve to accomplish any of the three points listed above.
The feds had confiscated the computer, so they knew of the location and existence of the computer files. (The court found that the fact that investigators did not know the specific content of any specific files on the computer did not matter.) And as for the authenticity of the computer files, the government would presumably be able to do that in other ways. Among other things, the computer was found in defendant’s bedroom. Information on the screen that showed up when it was turned on contained defendant’s first name. And perhaps most damningly, investigators had a taped phone conversation between defendant and her ex-husband discussing the computer and the fact it was password protected.