Oregon Appeals Court Decides Defendant Must Give Phone Passcode

In 2016, Catrice Pittman, 27, was ordered by a Marion County Judge to unlock her smartphone for use as evidence against her. In an unprecedented move, the Oregon Court of Appeals chose to uphold that ruling on October 16.  

Pittman ran her car into a tree in June 2016, injuring herself, an adult friend and five children. Hospital staff found a bag of methamphetamine in her purse, along with multiple empty bags, an iPhone and over $1,000. Pittman herself admitted to having used the drug that evening. 

Police investigating the case wanted access to the phone, as the prosecution had hoped to charge Pittman with dealing in methamphetamines. However, she refused to provide the passcode, or even confirm that the phone was hers. Despite the protestations of her attorney, Circuit Judge Tracy Prall ordered Pittman to unlock the device. After entering “123456” twice, Pittman was held in contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days imprisonment.  

This week, an Appeals Court consisting of Erika Hadlock, Roger DeHoog and Robyn Aoyagi ruled that the police had reasonable grounds to believe that the phone was hers, and that it was a “foregone conclusion” that she knew the code. Thus, it was within the court’s authority to demand her cooperation. 

According to Sarah Laidlaw, Pittman’s public defender in the appeal, “The upshot of this case is when police have a warrant to get information off a cellphone and the government knows the phone is yours and you have the passcode, then the court can compel you to enter the passcode.”  

Ryan Scott, a Portland criminal defense attorney following the case, says that the ruling won’t affect many defendants, as the police already have technology to force access. But newer model iPhones have proved tougher to crack, as in Pittman’s case. “For people who want their information private, I would recommend getting an iPhone,” Scott says, “And Apple is not paying me to say that.” 

Overall, Pittman received 11 years imprisonment after pleading guilty to driving under the influence and five counts of assault. 

By Brandon Urey