So Much For The Fifth Amendment: Man Jailed For Seven Months For Not Turning Over Password

Tech Dirt – by Tim Cushing

The FBI recently spent more than $1 million for assistance in decrypting a device’s contents. It may have overpaid. Alternatives exist, whether it’s a $5 wrench or indefinite imprisonment for not helping the government with its prosecution efforts.

A Philadelphia man suspected of possessing child pornography has been in jail for seven months and counting after being found in contempt of a court order demanding that he decrypt two password-protected hard drives.

The suspect, a former Philadelphia Police Department sergeant, has not been charged with any child porn crimes. Instead, he remains indefinitely imprisoned in Philadelphia’s Federal Detention Center for refusing to unlock two drives encrypted with Apple’s FileVault software in a case that once again highlights the extent to which the authorities are going to crack encrypted devices. The man is to remain jailed “until such time that he fully complies” with the decryption order.

The Fifth Amendment should prevent the government from punishing a person for not testifying against themselves, which is what’s being argued by the defendant’s representation in its appeal to the Third Circuit. (Although it’s actually indirect representation. The government’s case is actually against Doe’s devices [“United States of America v. Apple MacPro Computer, et al“] and his lawyer is hoping for a stay of the contempt order during the appeal process.)

Mr. Doe… has a strong likelihood of success on the second issue: whether compelling the target of a criminal investigation to recall and divulge an encryption passcode transgresses the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Supreme Court precedent already instructs that a suspect may not be compelled to disclose the sequence of numbers that will open a combination lock — clearly auguring the same rule for any compelled disclosure of the sequence of characters constituting an encryption passcode.

Doe’s rep also argues that the All Writs order obtained by the government has no jurisdiction over Doe or his devices.

Mr. Doe’s first claim is that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The claim stems from the government’s apparently unprecedented use of an unusual procedural vehicle to attempt to compel a suspect to give evidence in advance of potential criminal charges. Specifically, the government took resort not to a grand jury, but to a magistrate judge pursuant to the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651. (Ex. F at 1).

It is black letter law that the All Writs Act never supplies “any federal subject-matter jurisdiction in its own right[.]” Sygenta Crop Protection, Inc. v. Henson, 537 U.S. 28, 31 (2002) (citation omitted). It is equally well-settled that the Act has no application where other provisions of law specifically address the subject matter concerned. Pennsylvania Bureau of Correction v. United States Marshals Service, 474 U.S. 34, 40-42 (1985). The compelled production of evidence in advance of criminal charges is specifically addressed by Rules 6 and 17 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which authorize the issuance and enforcement of grand jury subpoenas; and by 28 U.S.C. § 1826(a), which specifies the authorized penalties for a witness who refuses without good cause to give the evidence demanded by the grand jury.

As it stands now, Doe is still being held in contempt of court for refusing to decrypt his devices for investigators. The district court that held him in contempt has refused direct appeal of that order, resulting in the labyrinthine legal strategy of using the government’s case against Doe’s devices as a vehicle for challenging the lower court’s contempt order.

Doe has not been charged, yet he’s in prison. Backing up the government’s assertions for holding him in contempt are two dubious pieces of hearsay. One is from his estranged sister, who claims to have seen child porn on Doe’s computer, but can’t actually say whether it was located on the devices the government is seeking to have decrypted. The other is from some sort of law enforcement encryption whisperer, who can apparently see things in the scrambled bits.

The government’s second witness was Detective Christopher Tankelewicz, a forensic examiner with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office. He testified only that it was his “best guess” child pornography would be found on the hard drives. (Ex. J at 346). According to Tankelewicz’s understanding of the Freenet online network (in which he admits having no training), there were signs on an Apple Mac Pro computer seized with the hard drives of a user accessing or trying to access message boards with names suggestive of child pornography. (Ex. J at 306, 311-312, 339-340). In rather ambiguous testimony, Tankelewicz did not appear to say this meant any image traded over these boards was on the hard drives. (See Ex. J at 303-317, 336-340, 345-350). Instead, he identified a single image he believed there to be a “possibility” was on the drives. (Ex. J at 308-309). As he described it, the image was of “a four or five-year-old girl with her dress lifted up, but the image itself was small so you really couldn’t see what was going on with the image.” (Ex. J at 308).

No one wants to see a sex offender walk away from charges, but at this point, Doe hasn’t even been officially charged with anything more than contempt. The problem with that charge is it has no end date. He can either stay in jail or comply with the order, even when the order conjures jurisdiction out of nowhere and violates his Fifth Amendment rights. If the government doesn’t have enough evidence to pursue a case against Doe, it should cut him loose until it does.

One thought on “So Much For The Fifth Amendment: Man Jailed For Seven Months For Not Turning Over Password

  1. Yes, this is about indefinite arrests, which is very disturbing but it’s also about a former cop accused of hiding child porn. The very people turning America into a giant police state are being held indefinitely is amusing.

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