A former Philadelphia cop remains in jail until he complies with the court and unlocks his drives.
Francis Rawls has been in the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center for 16 months after refusing to comply with a court order to hand over and unlock two of his hard drives. Rawls is suspected of having child pornography on the drives. Rawls has not been tried yet, and so, he could theoretically remain in jail indefinitely, until he chooses to hand over the drives.
The case brings to light a question regarding the fifth amendment of the US constitution: the right to not have to provide testimony which is self incriminating. Does this law extend to protect you from handing over digital evidence that could be used against you? A federal appeals court heard oral arguments about Rawls’ case last September, but as of yet, the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has not issued a response.
Rawls was first put in jail after a child porn investigation into the online network Freenet spotted activity that linked Rawls to the investigation. A search warrant was executed for Rawls’ home in 2015, and while the authorities have concluded that illicit material is very likely on the former police officer’s hard drives, they cannot know for sure until Rawls hands them the alleged evidence that is encrypted with Apple’s standard FileVault software.
While not a lot of sympathy will be garnered for anyone suspected of child pornography charges, Rawls’ case does highlight some legal question marks that have remained unanswered in our digital age. Apple, Microsoft and Android all offer encryption services that can keep data out of the hands of law enforcement. Should that be allowed? Until that is decided, Rawls will remain in jail. This also means that Rawls’ attorney, Federal Public Defender Keith Donoghue, can (and has) argued in court that his client is being “held without charges”.
The authorities meanwhile, have cited a 1789 law called the All Writs Act to force Rawls to decrypt. It is this ruling, which he refused, which landed him in jail. The law is the same one that was used when by Justice Department during its legal battle with Apple, in which a magistrate judge ordered Apple to produce a code to decrypt the iPhone used by one of two shooters who killed 14 people at a San Bernardino County government building.