CAAF will hear oral argument in the certified Army case of United States v. Mitchell, No. 17-0153/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, at at 12:30 p.m., at the Notre Dame Law School, Notre Dame, Indiana.
The case continues a prosecution appeal under Article 62 of a military judge’s ruling that suppressed the contents of Sergeant (E-5) Mitchell’s cell phone because military investigators continued to question him after he requested an attorney and that questioning led to Mitchell decrypting the device for the investigators. The Army Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the military judge’s suppression ruling, and the Judge Advocate General of the Army certified three issues to CAAF:
I. Whether the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause is violated when a suspect voluntarily unlocks his phone without giving his personal identification number to investigators.
II. Whether the Edwards rule is violated when investigators ask a suspect, who has requested counsel and returned to his place of duty, to unlock his phone incident to a valid search authorization.
III. Whether, assuming investigators violated appellant’s Fifth Amendment privilege or the Edwards rule, the military judge erred by suppressing the evidence.
Mitchell is charged with various offenses at a general court-martial. The bulk of the charges relate to allegations that Mitchell harassed his ex-wife. The search of Mitchell’s phone was based on a claim by his ex-wife that Mitchell contacted her using texting applications after he was issued a no-contact order. Mitchell was interrogated on this topic by military criminal investigators at a military police station where Mitchell invoked his right to counsel. Mitchell was then escorted back to his unit, but investigators immediately obtained a search authorization for the phone and Mitchell was brought to his company commander’s office where the investigators met him. There:
The investigators told Appellee [Mitchell] that they had a verbal search and seizure authorization for his electronic media. (JA 479). Appellee handed his iPhone 6 to the investigators. (JA 480). Investigator BT asked Appellee for his PIN, but Appellee refused to provide it. (JA 480). The military judge found as a fact that the investigators next said, ‘”[I]f you could unlock it, great, if you could help us out. But if you don’t, we’ll wait for a digital forensic expert to unlock it,’ or words to that effect.” (JA 480). Appellee refused to provide his PIN, but unlocked the phone and gave it back to the investigators. (JA 480).
Army App. Gov’t Div. Br. at 5. Mitchell’s brief, however, offers an additional fact:
According to SSG Vaughn, the investigators “badgered [SGT Mitchell]” multiple times until SGT Mitchell provided the passcode or unlocked his phone. (R. at 275).
App. Br. at 5.
The military judge concluded that the continued interrogation and Mitchell’s act of decrypting the phone violated Mitchell’s rights under the Fifth Amendment, and she applied Mil. R. Evid. 305(c)(2) to suppress the phone and its contents. The Army Appellate Government Division challenges that ruling and result with a broadside of complex and interwoven legal arguments that ultimately suggest that a suspect has no right to refuse to produce a decryption passcode. The Air Force Appellate Government Division supports the Army Division as amicus curiae. A pair of law professors also appear as amicus in support of the Government (by invitation of the court).
Mitchell responds to the various arguments advanced by the Government divisions, however his brief ultimately argues that the plain language of Mil. R. Evid. 305(c)(2) dictates the suppression of the phone in his case. That rule states:
(2) Fifth Amendment Right to Counsel. If a person suspected of an offense and subjected to custodial interrogation requests counsel, any statement made in the interrogation after such request, or evidence derived from the interrogation after such request, is inadmissible against the accused unless counsel was present for the interrogation.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of the District of Columbia support Mitchell as amicus curiae, arguing in part that “compelled decryption is inherently testimonial.” EFF Amicus Br. at 12. A law student (with professorial oversight) also appears as amicus for Mitchell.
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