Man Who Refused to Decrypt Hard Drives Still in Prison After Two Years

Hard Drive

Francis Rawls, a former Philadelphia cop, will remain in jail for refusing to decrypt a hard drive federal investigators found in his home two years ago during a child abuse investigation.

A judge ordered the man to prison almost two years ago after the suspect claimed he forgot the password of an encrypted Apple FileVault system investigators found attached to his computer while performing a house search.

Investigators said content stored on the encrypted hard drive matched file hashes for known child pornography content [source, page 5]. In addition, the man’s sister told investigators that her brother had showed her numerous photos and videos of child abuse and adult material.

Rawls sent to prison in 2015

Authorities tried to make Rawls hand over the hard drive’s password to verify claims, but he refused to comply. A federal judge found the man in contempt of court and sentenced him to an indefinite prison sentence until he was willing to cooperate.

Rawls said later he forgot the password and even entered three incorrect passwords during previous meetings with investigators.

The suspect appealed the indefinite prison sentence twice, but both appeals failed. His lawyers tried to argue that holding him breaches his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself, but appeal judges did not see it that way.

Judges pointed out that the Fifth Amendment only applies to witnesses and that the prosecutors didn’t call him as a witness but only made a request for him to unlock his device, hence Fifth Amendment protections did not apply.

Rawls files appeal with the Supreme Court

Rawls’ team has now filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court on the same grounds. His team also filed a request to have Rawls released during his Supreme Court appeal as he’s been held in court for more than 18 months, the standard punishment for contempt of court.

A judge declined the request saying that Rawls was not charged under a standard law (28 USC § 1826), but under All Writs Act (28 U.S.C. § 1651), hence he can be detained indefinitely.

This ancient piece of legislation dictates that US citizens must aide any law enforcement investigation. The prosecution used this legal trickery to avoid calling Rawls as a witness. This is also the same piece of legislation the FBI used against Apple when it tried to force the company to unlock the phone of the San Bernardino mass-shooter.

The government also said that Rawls doesn’t have to provide them with his password anymore, as they only need him to perform the act of unlocking the hard drive.

Bleeping Computer users have pointed out that you cannot match file hashes to encrypted content. The article was updated with a link to court documents from where the prosecution’s statement was cited.