A Florida man was sentenced to 180 days in jail for refusing to give up his smartphone passcode to authorities, while another Florida man who also refused to do so was let off the hook, according to a new report.
Christopher Wheeler, 41, of Hollywood, Florida, was taken into custody Tuesday after a Broward Circuit Judge made the ruling that he was in contempt of court. Wheeler insists that he had in fact given his PIN to the police — although the passcode he provided reportedly didn’t unlock the phone, according to the Miami Herald.
Law enforcement was reportedly investigating Wheeler for child abuse. By itself, the incident might not be all that notable, except for one fact. On the same day that Wheeler was taken into custody, in the next county over, another man refused to give authorities his iPhone passcode — and was let off the hook.
Wesley Victor, accused of extortion, said he couldn’t remember the password to his phone. A Miami-Dade Circuit Judge ruled on Tuesday that there was no provable way to know if Victor actually remembered his passcode. Victor and his girlfriend, Hencha Voigt, are being accused of threatening to release a social media star’s sex tapes unless she paid them $ 18,000, the Herald reported. Voigt provided her own iPhone passcode — but, like Wheeler’s, it didn’t work. She’ll reportedly be in court next week to explain why.
The two separate cases underscore the intensifying legal battles over privacy and tech encryption, an issue that’s becoming an increasing problem for law enforcement. Normally, U.S. citizens are protected by the Fifth Amendment from divulging self-incriminating information to authorities. But the Miami-Dade Judge presiding over the extortion case likened turning over an iPhone password to giving up the key to a safe-deposit box — something that the Supreme Court has ruled isn’t a violation of the Fifth. Basically, a safe key is fair game while a safe combination is not. If that wasn’t confusing enough, several courts have ruled that police can force you to unlock your phone with your fingerprint, the Atlantic reported.
Similarly, a Florida District Court of Appeals ruled in December that giving up an iPhone passcode is a case of surrender rather than testimony, and that authorities can sometimes compel defendants to give up their iPhone passcode if police can be reasonably sure of what they’re looking for. That thinking is based on the forgone conclusion clause of the Fifth Amendment, though many experts argue that smartphones should be exempt from that doctrine.
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