A reality TV actress accused in an extortion case involving sex videos must give up her iPhone password to police, a Miami judge ruled on Wednesday.
In a case being closely watched in legal and tech circles, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Charles Johnson ruled that Hencha Voigt, and a man charged with being her accomplice, must unlock phones police believe were used in a plot to extort a social-media celebrity.
He ruled that unlocking their phones would not violate their constitutional right against self-incrimination. “For me, this is like turning over a key to a safe-deposit box,” Johnson said.
Voigt and co-defendant Wesley Victor have two weeks to decide whether to comply. If they refuse, they could be jailed for contempt of court.
The decision was the latest in the ongoing struggles of the courts to decide how much access law-enforcement can have to smartphones, tablets and hard drives, many of them locked with sophisticated encryption. Across the country, judges have split about whether to force defendants to open electronic devices. Florida’s Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue.
“No question in my mind that the U.S. Supreme Court will need to decide the issue eventually. To me, it’s not so much a question of if, but when,” said Mark Rumold, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which does not agree with the government forcing people to unlock their phones.
The issue of encryption has also ensnared tech companies and drawn concern from the highest levels of law enforcement.
Most notably, Apple last year resisted the federal government’s attempt to order the company to help unlock an iPhone owned by the Islamic State-inspired gunman who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. On Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey, testifying before Congress, noted that in the first six months of this fiscal year, agents encountered over 6,000 devices for which they had judicial authorization to open.
“Forty-six percent of those cases we could not open those devices with any technique,” Comey testified. “That means half of the devices that we encounter in terrorism cases, in counterintelligence cases, in gang cases, in child pornography cases, cannot be opened with any technique.”
Voigt, 29, and Victor, 33, are charged with extortion, conspiracy to extort and the unlawful use of a phone.
In this case, Voigt and Victor are accused of threatening to release sex videos stolen from a phone belonging to a Miami socialite known as YesJulz. Prosecutors say the pair last year demanded $18,000 from YesJulz, whose real name is Julieanne Goddard. The videos were nevertheless leaked to the internet after their arrests.
YesJulz is a social-media star, party promoter and online marketer who has been dubbed the “Queen of Snapchat.”
She hailed Wednesday’s ruling, while acknowledging the constitutional questions it raises.
“We need to examine the laws and find a way to adjust to the digital age without compromising our rights as citizens,” YesJulz told the Miami Herald. “In my opinion, in this particular case, it made sense for the court to rule for her to unlock the phone.
“The crime at hand is not a misdemeanor, it is a felony and was a serious offense.”
Voigt, of Hollywood, is a self-described “fitness model” who has more than 193,000 followers on Instagram. Last fall, she starred on E!’s “Miami WAGS,” a reality show that followed the wives and girlfriends of sports celebrities.
Investigators believe Voigt may have stolen YesJulz’s phone from a party the two attended. Voigt and Victor, her boyfriend, were arrested together on Miami Beach right after a flurry of text messages were sent from throwaway phone to the victim demanding the money.
After Voigt and Victor were jailed, prosecutors secured a search warrant from a judge to examine four phones seized during the arrest. Investigators were unable to access an iPhone belonging to Voigt, and a BlackBerry belonging to Victor.
Prosecutor Michael Filteau, in seeking access to the phones,. cited a December appeals court decision that allowed police in Sarasota to force a suspected voyeur, allegedly caught at a mall trying to take photos up women’s skirts, to give up his iPhone pass code. Johnson ruled that he had no choice but to follow the decision from Sarasota.
“That’s the law in Florida at this point,” said Johnson.
The defense lawyers, Kertch Conze and Zeljka Bozanic, said they will explore a possible appeal.
“We were not surprised by the ruling,” Conze said. “But this is not a decision we agree with. We will speak to my client to see if she remembers the pass code to begin with.”