A man suspected of child abuse has been imprisoned for 180 days after failing to provide detectives the correct passcode for his iPhone.
Christopher Wheeler, 41, has been accused of hitting and scratching his 8-year-old daughter. Investigators believe his iPhone holds potential evidence of the injuries. Wheeler insisted that the passcode he had given the police was correct.
The Florida court judge presiding over the case found Wheeler, who was arrested in March, guilty of contempt of court. Though a search warrant was obtained for the phone, the alleged photos could not be used in the case due to the passcode barrier.
“I swear, under oath, I’ve given them the password,” Wheeler insisted when he appeared in court. The judge has said that Wheeler will be released if he relinquishes the passcode.
“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.
Last year, a Florida court ruled that a man suspected of voyeurism must turn over his passcode to police. A trial judge later denied the motion, equating the motion to making the man submit his passcode to testify against himself, which is a violation of the Fifth Amendment. The Florida Court of Appeal’s 2nd District later ruled that prosecutors may compel the suspected video voyeur to reveal the passcodes to investigators.
“Providing the passcode does not ‘betray any knowledge [Stahl] may have about the circumstances of the offenses’ for which he is charged. Thus, ‘compelling a suspect to make a nonfactual statement that facilitates the production of evidence’ for which the state has otherwise obtained a warrant based upon evidence independent of the accused’s statements linking the accused to the crime does not offend the privilege,” the court ruled.
This case has yet to be heard by the Supreme Court, so the decision may not be permanent.
“Compelling Mr. Wheeler to enter the password forces him to produce evidence that may be used to later incriminate him by the government,” his attorneys argued earlier this year. “It forces him to produce contents of his phone that Mr. Wheeler at no time admitted to authorities existed.”
Passcodes for both Android and IOS devices have proven to be a significant hurdle in many cases similar to Wheeler’s. Last year, the widely reported showdown between the FBI and Apple, when investigators were unable to access the smartphone of Syed Farook caused fierce debate. Both Syed and his wife were accused of conducting a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. The phone company refused the FBI backdoor-entry into the phone, sparking a high-profile legal battle. The phone was eventually accessed with the assistance of an undisclosed third-party.