Judge won’t release man jailed 2 years for refusing to decrypt drives

Kid-porn suspect to remain jailed pending 5th Amendment appeal to Supreme Court.

Francis Rawls, a fired Philadelphia cop, has been behind bars since September 30, 2015 for declining a judicial order to unlock two hard drives that authorities found at his residence as part of a child-porn investigation.

After a two-year failed effort to convince the lower courts that his confinement amounted to a Fifth Amendment violation of his constitutional right against compelled self-incrimination, his lawyers asked a Pennsylvania federal judge if Rawls could be released pending the outcome of a forthcoming appeal to the US Supreme Court.

US District Judge Cynthia Rufe refused. In a brief Wednesday order, the judge sided with prosecutors who said that contempt-of-court offenses carry indefinite prison terms and can last until the court order is complied with or lifted. Rawls’ lawyers contended that a legal nuance meant that he could only be imprisoned for 18 months, an assertion Rufe rejected. Although Rufe took the government’s position, she noted that each side raised “interesting and complex arguments.” (PDF)

Prosecutors said Rawls has a lot of “chutzpah” to even ask to get out of jail while he appeals the contempt-of-court order to the Supreme Court, which has never decided whether forcing somebody to decrypt hardware amounted to a Fifth Amendment violation.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court also concluded in Rawls’ case that it was a “foregone conclusion” that kid porn was on the drives because a forensic examination of the computer to which the drives were attached revealed that the “hash” values of the files have been linked by the authorities to known child pornography. Still, Rawls has not been criminally charged with any child-porn offenses.

All of this aside, this issue raises the question of what happens if someone is ordered to decrypt hardware but claims they forgot the passcode. Is that a valid defense? Ars has explored the answer to that question, and it seems to be both “yes” and “no.”

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