A Hollywood, Florida man has been sentenced to 180 days in jail for not giving police officers his cellphone’s passcode upon request.
Christopher Wheeler, 41, was taken into custody in a Broward Circuit Court. He insisted that he had provided his passcode to the police officers who were investigating him, but the code that he provided did not allow them to access the device.
Wheeler was arrested and charged with child abuse in March for allegedly assaulting his 8 year-old daughter, who prosecutors say he hit and scratched.
Detectives believe that his phone could contain pictures that show the injuries that he is accused of inflicting on the girl. A Broward County judge issued a search warrant prior to his arrest. Despite the search warrant, Wheeler refused to provide the passcode. According to prosecutors, Mr. Wheeler’s daughter previously told investigators, “Daddy takes pictures of me all the time with his phone.”
On May 12th Circuit Judge Michael Rothschild held Wheeler in contempt. Judge Rothschild handed down the 180-day jail sentence during a hearing in Fort Lauderdale this week.
“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 wrote in his ruling.
The cases underscores the controversy courts are facing when ordering searches of personal mobile devices that are password-protected. Critics say that forcing the accused to provide a phone passcode violates a citizen’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Proponents of forced search of these devices say that it is no different that demanding a key for a safe deposit box.
At the core of the issue is Amendment V of the U.S. Constitution:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
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