Legal Technology Dilemma: Suspect in Fraud Case Has to Give Unencrypted Hard Drive of Her Laptop to Federal Agents

By Ed Silverstein February 22, 2012

A Colorado fraud case has got many criminal defense attorneys really worked up over the prospect of a suspect being forced to turn over the hard drive of her laptop to federal agents. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court chose not to intercede clearing the way for a lower court’s order that Ramona Fricosu turn over an unencrypted version of the hard drive, according to news reports.

The case has led to questions whether protection against self-incrimination prevents someone from being forced to “unlock a computer's protected files,” reports The Associated Press.

The order from U.S. District Judge Robert E. Blackburn is a "very dangerous precedent that a person may be forced to assist in her prosecution in a way the law has not seen ever before," Phillip DuBois, the suspect’s attorney, told The AP.

Fricosu has to turn the hard drive of the laptop to authorities by Monday. The laptop was already seized by federal agents. During a meeting, Fricosu will enter a password for the laptop and hand it over to the agents so they can copy the hard drive, says The AP. Another once-mentioned option was for her to give her password to the agents.

The case has raised concerns by the Electronic Freedom Foundation. The EFF said in a statement that forcing the woman “to enter a password into an encrypted laptop … would violate her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.”

“The government offered Fricosu some limited immunity, but did not give adequate guarantees that it won't use the information on the computer against her,” EFF claims.

DuBois said his client may not know the password. She is from Romania and is not familiar with computer technology, her attorney charged. "The government has no idea what's on that computer," DuBois added in an article carried on TechZone360.

Fricosu and her husband, Scott Whatcott, allegedly filed fraudulent documents to get title to Colorado homes and then sold the residences without ever paying outstanding mortgages as promised, according to allegations reported by The AP.

Edited by Rich Steeves

TechZone360 Contributor

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