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What’s your password? Indiana Supreme Court to rule on unlocking smartphones for police

CARMEL, Ind. – Smartphones are just that, smart! And when you put a password on them, they're even smarter, encrypting everything on your phone.

About 95 percent of Americans have cell phones and 77 percent have smartphones, according to Pew Research. Many of them are password protected.

It keeps crooks out, and it turns out, law enforcement too!

With so many smartphone users, an upcoming case before the Indiana Supreme Court is pivotal for nearly every Hoosier.

This week, the state’s justices will look at smartphones and search warrants, and ultimately decide if a Carmel woman must unlock her phone.

FOX59’s Beairshelle Edmé learned why that ruling will impact Hoosiers and detectives who solve crimes.

The question at the center of this case for the defense team is, can police force you or anyone else to give up a smartphone’s passcode.

"So my case is a classic example that someone not giving up their password doesn't mean that the state can’t proceed with a criminal case,” said defense attorney William Webster.

Webster is representing Katelin Seo, a Carmel woman who the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office investigated for harassment and stalking charges. Investigators report that she made threats to a man she dated and another woman.

Authorities obtained search warrants to look through her phone, but Seo refused to give them the passcode.

Her attorney argues – giving up that password – would force his client to testify against herself. Seo ultimately pled the Fifth.

"Ms. Seo chose the more vigilante path and so now the question really is here must individuals follow court orders in these types of investigations,” said Stephen Creason, the chief counsel of appeals for the Indiana Attorney General’s Office.

The Indiana Supreme Court will decide if she, or any other Hoosier, has to unlock a phone for investigators with a search warrant.

Asked by Edmé why his client wouldn’t share the password if she’d already pled guilty, Webster clarified with an example, “They're saying, 'We're not really asking her to say anything. We're asking her to just punch in her code.' To me there's no difference in that and saying, 'Did you do it? I'm not asking you to tell me, but just check yes or no on the sheet.'”

The Indiana Attorney General's Office will argue that this isn't a privacy or incrimination issue, but a stalker who defied court orders.

"Theoretically, depending on how the court rules, it would be impossible for the law enforcement to realistically get access to computers of any kind,” Creason detailed.

And the state prosecutor says cell phones are computers. Creason tells FOX59 that a ruling in favor of Seo could mean a harder time solving crimes or getting justice.

Law enforcement advocates who spoke to our partners at the Indy Star agree, saying it would slow down investigations.

"Without access to that we cannot prove crimes were committed, let alone identify who the guilty parties were and hold them accountable in a court of law,” he told FOX59.

But Hamilton County did find enough evidence that Seo accepted a plea deal.

Either way, whichever argument the public believes, the stakes are high not just for Seo and every Indiana law enforcement agency, but for any Hoosier who has a smartphone.

The case will go before the state’s justices on April 18.

Both sides believe the matter could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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