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Pennsylvania: Former Cop Indefinitely Jailed for Failure to Supply Passwords

In March 2015, former Philadelphia police sergeant Francis Rawls, 37, was identified as a suspect in a child porno­graphy ring. As part of the investigation, Delaware County authorities confiscated several electronic devices from Rawls’ home and requested that he provide the passwords to decrypt the computers, tablets, iPhone and external hard drives. Rawls did not cooperate, saying he “couldn’t remember” the passwords. A court order was obtained requiring Rawls to divulge the encryption keys. He again did not comply. In September 2015, a judge found that Rawls’ explanation of forgetfulness was implausible; he was held in contempt and jailed indefinitely even though he had not been charged with a crime.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard testimony in the case on September 7, 2016. Defense attorney Keith M. Donoghue argued that decryption of the computers and other devices would violate Rawls’ rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Judish countered that authorities could demand the production of a key to a safe if they knew its contents; he compared Rawls’ passwords to a safe key. Neither lawyer addressed the possibility that, just like many other computer users, Rawls had actually forgotten his passwords.

The three-judge appellate panel did not issue a ruling after the hearing, and gave no time frame in which it expected to do so. As this issue goes to press, Rawls remains incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center-Philadelphia, where he has been held for over a year. Meanwhile, he was suspended and later fired by the Philadelphia Police Department.


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