Seo v. State of Indiana has become known within the Firm as the Indiana Supreme Court “cell phone case.” Attorney William Webster of Webster & Garino has worked on this case since July 2017. The defendant, Ms. Seo, sought legal representation from Webster & Garino after investigators armed with a search warrant demanded the passcode to Ms Seo’s iPhone 7 smartphone. Investigators sought evidence to support multiple criminal charges against her arising from accusations of stalking and sending threatening text messages.
Citing her Constitutional Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Ms. Seo refused to supply the passcode. The Trial Court rejected her invocation of the Fifth on the grounds that unlocking a phone did not represent compelled testimony that results in self-incrimination.
Victory on Appeal
After the court declared her in contempt of court, Mr. Webster presented his arguments before the Court of Appeals of Indiana. That Court of Appeals accepted her use of the Fifth Amendment and reversed the Trial Court’s opinion.
Onward to the Supreme Court
The State of Indiana then appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court. On April 18, 2019, arguments were presented in the Indiana Supreme Court cell phone case.
Mr. Webster explained that forcing Ms. Seo to give her passcode amounted to asking her to share the contents of her memory. In his view, this represented compelled testimony that could lead to self-incrimination. He cited Doe v. United States that established a distinction in Fifth Amendment protections between compelling someone to give physical access to potential evidence and compelling someone to share memorized information.
Attorneys representing the State focused on the foregone conclusion exception to the Fifth Amendment. The State built its argument upon Fisher v. United States, which determined that the Fifth Amendment did not apply when someone was compelled to provide financial records. The existence of the documents was a foregone conclusion not dependent on the client’s testimony.
Mr. Webster maintained that it was not a foregone conclusion that incriminating evidence existed on Ms. Seo’s phone. As Mr. Webster explained, Fisher involved specific records prepared by a party other than the defendant. This differed from the desire of the police to access all files on Ms. Seo’s phone.
In response to the State’s arguments about undermining law enforcement, Mr. Webster called on the Supreme Court Justices to recognize the long tradition of protection from self-incrimination in a free society.
Many other states, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, await the outcome of this Indiana Supreme Court Case. A ruling in favor of Ms. Seo’s Fifth Amendment rights could strengthen privacy rights. Alternatively, a decision that accepts the State’s position could increase the government’s power to pry into personal affairs with few limitations.