Jailed over locked computer, ex-cop loses again in court

AP News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2017 11:42 AM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A U.S. appeals court has rejected a fired police sergeant's stance that forcing him to unlock his encrypted computer files in a child porn investigation would violate his constitutional rights.

Former Philadelphia officer Francis Rawls has not been charged with a crime, but he has been jailed for 18 months for contempt because he hasn't entered the right passwords for investigators to access the files.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Monday noted that police already had forensic evidence that Rawls had child pornography stored on his computer hard drive, including a relative's statement and electronic fingerprints showing he had downloaded it. Therefore, the court said, Rawls would not be incriminating himself by entering the password to decrypt the material.

A lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who argued the case last year, disagreed.

"You're being compelled to provide the contents of your mind. That is squarely prohibited by the Fifth Amendment," Senior Staff Attorney Mark Rumold said. "Law enforcement is asking (him) to produce evidence that they don't have to aid in his conviction."

Rawls, 38, is expected to remain behind bars until he decides to cooperate, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Rotella said. He is collecting a police pension, she said, and being held in Manhattan as a precaution given his years on the Philadelphia force.

Rawls came to the attention of suburban Philadelphia police during a routine online pornography investigation. They seized his personal computers and cellphone in 2015 but could not unlock them. Rawls later spent hours in a police laboratory, unlocking a new phone he had gotten but claiming, as he tried different passwords, that he couldn't recall the one to access the encrypted hard drive. The phone contained both adult pornography and suggestive images of a 6-year-old girl, the court said.

Authorities, citing a "foregone conclusion exception" to the Fifth Amendment, argued that Rawls could not invoke his right to self-incrimination because police already had evidence of a crime. The 3rd Circuit panel agreed, upholding a lower court decision.

The Atlanta-based 11th Circuit — in a case where police did not have other evidence — has said that a suspect could not be compelled to turn over unencrypted computer files. Rumold questioned whether Rawls, more than a year later, even remembers his.

"It's quite possible he remains in jail for failing to comply with an order he can't comply with," he said.

However, Rotella said the court did not find that theory credible.

"The court has found ... that he's in contempt, that he can remember, and that he's choosing not to give the password," she said. "He'll just be in prison until he decides he's going to cooperate."