PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A former Philadelphia police sergeant has spent seven months in solitary confinement after being held in contempt for failing to unlock his computers in a child-porn investigation.
Computer privacy advocates argue that authorities have no right to force Francis Rawls to unlock the encrypted files and potentially incriminate himself. Rawls has appealed the contempt finding to a federal appeals court.
"When can the government force you, the device owner, to help them put you in jail?" asked lawyer Perry de Marco Jr., who initially represented Rawls in the case.
But federal prosecutors armed with a search warrant believe the hard drives contain "very graphic images" of children engaged in sex acts.
The case began when Rawls caught the attention of a suburban Philadelphia police department investigating online pornography. They seized his computers in March 2015 but could not unlock it. Months later, Rawls spent hours in a police forensics laboratory trying out different passwords before saying he could not recall them.
De Marco beat back a contempt hearing in state court on self-incrimination grounds, but authorities moved the case to federal court, where prosecutors argued that a "foregone conclusion" exception lets them compel someone to surrender evidence when authorities know it exists.
A federal judge agreed with them and ordered Rawls into custody for contempt in October.
"For many, if not most, Americans, our computers, phones, and other electronic devices contain a catalogue of information as diverse as the thoughts in our mind. These devices, and the information they contain, define our 'familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations," staff attorney Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in an amicus brief, quoting a ruling by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Walsh wrote that authorities were forcing a cruel choice between "self-incrimination, perjury or contempt — that the Fifth Amendment was designed to protect against." Only one other appeals court has had to tackle the issue, she said.
As a former police officer, Rawls is being housed alone for his own protection in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, in the same city where he rose up the ranks during his 17-year police career. Judges have so far refused to release him while the appeal proceeds.
"What is the length of time that's appropriate to keep someone in jail for that? Are there secrets on a computer that carry a year in jail, or life imprisonment?" de Marco said.
In a somewhat tangential issue, Rawls' sister contacted police at one point to say she had seen him with pornography on a device. Rawls unlocked an Iphone for police, who found adult pornography but did not file any charges.
De Marco said the sister, now estranged, was angry that he had stopped supporting her.
Three years later, Rawls has never been charged with a crime. He was fired from the police department last year.
Federal prosecutors have until May 16 to file their brief with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They declined to comment on the case Friday. However, in court papers, they said they believe Rawls' "hard drives contain hundreds of very graphic images and video of unequivocal child pornography. ... Many of the children were toddler age."
De Marco said he's seen no evidence of that.
"I would want some kind of proof of what was on the machine before I took a man's liberty for this length of time," he said.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the foundation is Electronic Frontier Foundation, not Electronic Freedom Foundation, and Walsh's first name is Kit, not Kim.