A 41-year-old Florida man was sentenced to 180 days behind bars until he coughs up the password to his smartphone.
Christopher Wheeler was arrested on March 6 for aggravated child abuse, domestic violence and child neglect, The Washington Times reported. Files from the Boward Circuit Court state that Wheeler's young daughter suffered from "severe bruising, swelling and scratches."
At the time of his arrest, Wheeler's password-protected phone was seized due to claims that the father documented his abuse in his photos on the device. Although he claims that he had given the police the password, police state that it didn’t work. As a result, Circuit Judge Michael Rothschild decided to hold Wheeler in contempt as of May 12 -- and jail him for nearly six months.
But Wheeler was given an "out."
“Should defendant provide a password which unlocks the phone prior to sentencing or thereafter, the court will purge the contempt and vacate the sentence,” the judge ruled.
Wheeler's case is among many others in which defendants argue the Fifth Amendment -- the defense against self-incrimination -- in order to protect their privacy and prevent access to their phones. Rulings in these types of cases have not been uniform, and as tech companies start to release new forms of passwords and privacy-protection methods, such as fingerprints and iris patterns, the rulings are only getting more confusing.
Former FBI Director James Comey stated that nearly half of the 6,000 smartphones and tablets seized by federal investigators have uncrackable passwords, leaving a massive amount of questions unanswered.
“That means half of the devices that we encounter in terrorism cases, in counterintelligence cases, in gang cases, in child pornography cases, cannot be opened with any technique,” Comey said.
While Wheeler's case unfolded, a similar incident was happening in Miami-Dade, the Miami Herald explains.
A man and a woman were arrested and held in contempt for allegedly extorting a social media celebrity, claiming they had sex videos they would publish if they didn't receive monetary compensation.
Wesley Victor and Hencha Voigt, the couple in the case, were both ordered by a judge to provide passwords to their respective phones. Victor claimed he didn't remember the number, while his girlfriend gave a password that didn’t work.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Charles Johnson declined to hold Victor in contempt, citing that there was no way to prove the defendant actually remembered his password.
Voigt is scheduled to appear in court the first week of June.