Man Held Indefinitely (In Solitary) For Not Decrypting Devices

This mans lock and key just put him under lock and key.

Government Argues That Indefinite Solitary Confinement Perfectly Acceptable Punishment For Failing To Decrypt Devices

from the ‘The-Blank-Permission-Slip-Act-of-1789’ dept

Read The Case File Here

Recently, we covered the ongoing jailing of a former Philadelphia police officer for his refusal to unlock encrypted devices for investigators. “John Doe” is suspected of receiving child porn but the government apparently can’t prove its case without access to hard drives and Doe’s personal computer. So far, it’s claiming the evidence it’s still seeking is a “foregone conclusion” — an argument the presiding judge found persuasive.

The “foregone conclusion” is based on an interview with Doe’s estranged sister, who claims she once saw something resembling child porn on Doe’s computer — although she can’t say for sure whether it involved the devices the government seeks access to — and its own expert, who says it’s his “best guess” that child porn can be found on the devices.

Hardly compelling, but compelling enough that Doe has spent seven months in jail to date. The government has filed its response to Doe’s motion to stay the contempt order. It argues that Doe can spend the rest of his life in jail for all it cares. If he wants to be released, he just needs to unlock the encrypted devices. (via Brad Heath)

Doe faces no irreparable harm in the absence of a stay. In arguing otherwise, what he fails to recognize is that his imprisonment is conditional – it is based entirely on Doe’s continued defiance of the district court order. There can be no question that loss of liberty is a recognized harm. But Doe’s incarceration is by his own hand. His release pending an appeal is entirely avoidable through obedience to the court order.

The government goes on to point out that Doe — once he’s unlocked the devices — can then present his arguments for evidence suppression.

Doe could choose to obey the court’s directive by unencrypting his devices, and his release would be granted. This is no way affects his appeal. He would still be able to persist in his appeal, and, if successful, the evidence the government would gain through forcing Doe to unencrypt his devices would be suppressed. The “irreparable harm” Doe complains of now is not “irreparable” in any sense, as it is entirely within Doe’s control.

As the government notes, civil contempt charges are meant to be coercive. As such, the only person keeping Doe from being released from prison is Doe himself. Of course, if the drives contain what the government claims they contain, he’d just be exchanging an indefinite sentence for a more finite one.

The added wrinkle to this case is the terms of Doe’s confinement for contempt. Doe is in solitary confinement — something the UN has declared to be torture— supposedly for his own protection. It’s generally true that the prison population has no love for child porn fans. They’re not overly fond of imprisoned law enforcement officers either. And the nuances of the case — that Doe has not actually been convicted of child porn charges but rather has been jailed for contempt of court — will likely go unexamined by other inmates.

So, it may be that Doe’s solitary confinement would be less torturous than spending time in general population, but at the end of it, we have a person jailed indefinitely in solitary confinement for nothing more than contempt charges. The government’s arguments on behalf of the jailing seem to assert that it has plenty of evidence already in hand. If so, the question is why the government hasn’t moved forward with prosecution, rather than pushing for Doe to decrypt his devices. Either it has a case or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then the indefinite jailing is punitive — a punishment for the defendant not being more helpful in building a case against himself, which is the root of Fifth Amendment protections, no matter how the government chooses to phrase it


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Christopher Kemmett

Founder of The Real Strategy and Lowest Priced Advertisements.