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Contempt Continues for Ex-Cop Refusing to Decrypt Hard Drives

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 30, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's just a matter of time before Francis Rawls will have to man up to some damning technology.

You see, Rawls has been sitting in jail two years now for refusing to decrypt his hard drives. A judge held him in contempt in 2015 because he would not unlock encrypted drives connected to his Apple Mac Pro. Why?

He says it's because he has a right not to incriminate himself, but it could be that the sentence for possessing child porn is a lot worse than two years. Either way, Rawls is in tech hell.

"Foregone Conclusion"

A federal judge and an appeals court have already rejected his Fifth Amendment defense. The courts said it was "a foregone conclusion" that kiddie porn was on the drives because a forensic expert already found known indicators on the files.

Rawls and his lawyers are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will see it differently. It's not looking good, however.

The contempt case was filed under seal, but Rawls' story and name are all over the internet. The former Philadelphia sergeant may hide his computer files, but not his identity.

His lawyers are asking the judge again to let him out of jail. Keith Donoghue, a public defender, said the law allows a maximum of 18 months for contempt of court. It will be 24 months in September.

Fifth Amendment First

If the Supreme Court hears the case, Ars Technica reports that it would be the first time the justices will weigh the constitutionality of whether forcing somebody to decrypt hardware violates the Fifth Amendment.

It is not the first time federal courts have faced the question, however. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a child porn suspect had a right to refuse to decrypt his computers.

In that case, a federal prosecutor obtained an order granting the suspect immunity if he complied. But the appeals court said the suspect retained his Fifth Amendment privilege not to comply with an order compelling him to decrypt.

That decision, however, may not control Rawls' case. In United States v. Hubbell, the Supreme Court said the Fifth Amendment does not apply to production when the government has "knowledge of the contents, location or existence of the documents from an" outside source.

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