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The Fifth Amendment Vs. Indefinite Jailing: Court Still No Closer To Deciding On Compelled Decryption

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We wrote about this case last April, and it appears very little has changed over the last 10 months. Francis Rawls, a former Philadelphia policeman, is still in jail because he has refused to decrypt his computer for prosecutors. At this point, Rawls has been jailed for sixteen months on contempt of court charges.





How long will Rawls stay jailed without a criminal conviction? The prosecution says that's up to him. As for the appeals court, it apparently doesn't feel a pressing need to address the unresolved issue: whether or not the Fifth Amendment protects citizens against being forced to turn over passwords.



The federal court system appears to be in no hurry to resolve an unresolved legal issue: does the Fifth Amendment protect the public from being forced to decrypt their digital belongings? Until this is answered, Rawls is likely to continue to languish behind bars. A federal appeals court heard oral arguments about Rawls' plight last September. So far, there's been no response from the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia.



If Rawls' devices had been secured with a fingerprint, there's a good chance he'd already have been forced to unlock his devices. There haven't been a lot of decisions pertaining to the use of fingerprints to decrypt devices, but those we have seen indicate judges don't view the taking/application of suspects' fingerprints to be "testimonial." Unlocking a device that contains evidence to convict a person apparently doesn't undermine their right to not be forced to testify against themselves. The reasoning in a recent appeals court decision was that a fingerprint is not something stored in a suspect's mind. Therefore, it's not testimony. It's, for lack of better words, a bodily "fact," like the blood stored in a suspect or a suspect's resemblance to a person described by eyewitnesses.



Because Rawls is facing child pornography charges, there hasn't been much public support for his legal battle. The problem with ignoring this one and waiting for a "better" case to roll around is that the weakening (or rewriting) of Constitutional protections almost always starts with the worst cases. Once precedent and/or legislation is in place, the diminished protections affect everyone -- even those whose alleged actions are far less socially-abhorrent as the accused in this case.



The EFF, however, has stepped into the breach -- as it has in other cases where child porn suspects are central to battles over Constitutional rights.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation told the court in a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) that "compelled decryption is inherently testimonial because it compels a suspect to use the contents of their mind to translate unintelligible evidence into a form that can be used against them. The Fifth Amendment provides an absolute privilege against such self-incriminating compelled decryption."

The other aspect of this case that bears watching is the All Writs Order the government has deployed to obtain this fingerprint. The All Writs Act of 1789 is seeing an uptick in deployment 200+ years after its passage. The government uses this any time it can't find statutory authority for its demands. It's a feature of the Act, not a bug, and its increased use suggests several other laws are badly in need of updating -- and not just in the government's favor. There are at least as many gaps in protections as there are gaps in authority in the laws governing digital data and communications, many of which were written long before the internet became the main means of public communication and storage capacity/prices allowed any person to store several lifetimes of information on devices small enough to stick in their pockets.


By Tim Cushing



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Let's say I'm suspected of a crime. The cops don't have enough enough evidence to charge me, but they have probable cause for a search warrant to obtain my documents which may be evidence against me, said documents being in my nigh-unbreakable safe. Can the government compel me to open my safe for them, or am I protected under the 5th Amendment prohibition against self-incrimination?


This is a serious legal issue and I think the courts are intentionally dragging their feet, hoping he gives up before this makes its way to the Supreme Court.

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