Man Jailed Over a Year for Not Disclosing Password

John Lister's picture

A US court says a man must provide the password to unlock two hard drives that prosecutors say contain unlawful images. The court rejected his appeal that to do so would breach his fifth amendment rights, which roughly translate to: "No person shall be held to answer for a ... [crime], unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury."

The case is an unusual twist on the more common disputes about how the fourth amendment -- which deals with searches and seizures -- applies to technology. In this case the man claims that handing over the password could incriminate him.

The police involved in the case seized an iPhone, two external hard drives and a Mac computer. The suspect did agree to unlock the phone, which police say contained one potentially illegal image of a child.

The police then managed to decrypt the Mac computer without the suspect's assistance. They say that filenames referenced on the computer suggested it had been used to access other explicit images of children. However, it appears the image files themselves are stored on the external drives, both of which are encrypted.

Man Held For Contempt

Francis Rawls has not yet been charged with any crimes involving the images themselves. Instead he has been held in prison since 2015 for contempt of court after refusing to comply with a court order to provide the unlock password. (Source:

At one stage he said he could not remember it, though his appeal was instead argued on the fifth amendment principle.

The appeal court ruled this week that the fifth amendment doesn't apply in this case because of a rule known as the "foregone conclusion" doctrine. With paper documents, this comes into force when two conditions apply: the government can prove that the relevant documents exist and that the suspect has access to them. In other words, it wouldn't learn anything new and it's simply a case of getting the evidence in place for prosecution.

Hard Drive at Centre of Legal Split

The dispute here is how that applies to files on a hard drive. The defendant says "foregone conclusion" should only apply if the government knows the contents of the hard drive. The government argument, which the court accepted, was that in this circumstance it only needs to prove the defendant has the password. (Source:

For now the defendant will remain behind bars over the contempt issue unless and until he provides the password. However, it's possible he may take it further up the judicial appeals system, possibly even to the Supreme Court.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you agree with the man's argument that handing over the password violates the fifth amendment? What if any differences should apply in cases with devices and hard drives rather than paper documents? Can the law cover cases where a person has genuinely forgotten a password -- or if they falsely claim to do so?

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dan400man's picture

... but it is scary to think that the government could force someone to incriminate themselves. I've no idea what the "foregone conclusion" provision is, and whether it is being applied in this case the way it was intended. My advice is, as always, to STFU when authorities ask questions except to say that you want a lawyer.

I'm no spring chicken, and I'm sure I've got some things password protected from years ago that I would have a hard time remembering the passwords for. I can't imagine being locked up for a year or more just because I legitimately forgot a password. Good way to ruin someone's life.

Not saying this guy's being honest about that and my guess is, just from reading this article, this guy's got some child porn hidden on those drives. If the authorities are able to decrypt them by constitutionally legal means and find child porn, then throw the book at this guy.

Could we please return to being a constitutional republic?

jcgrande's picture

I'd hate to see a child predator go unpunished but the principals of privacy and right not to incriminate yourself are too important to be overturned without the Supreme Court weighing in on the matter. What if he has the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease and genuinely can't remember his password, do you keep him locked up for a bad memory. Do they know 100% for sure that he has child pornography on the suspect HDDs or is it a fishing expedition?This definitely has to go to the Supreme Court to get directions on how to handle the fast changing issues that technology now presents to the Public and Law Enforcement.