For a lot of smartphone users, passcodes are the only thing that separates the personal content on their phones from the outside world. For law enforcement, a passcode might be the only thing separating them from getting a conviction.
Judges can grant police officers warrants that get our smartphones confiscated. But since the fifth amendment protects us from self-incrimination, can they force us to unlock our devices?
No. But they can throw you in jail if you don’t. A circuit court judge ruled that Christopher Wheeler, a 41-year-old from Florida, must serve 180 days in jail for refusing to give up his passcode. Wheeler was charged with abusing his 8-year-old daughter and detectives believe that he has photos of her injuries on his phone.
After Wheeler was arrested, a warrant for his phone was granted. But the police can’t access his photo gallery without a passcode. A judge ordered him to provide it but the numbers Wheeler gave did not unlock the phone.
“I swear, under oath, I’ve given them the password,” Wheeler told Circuit Judge Rothschild in court. The judge says he’ll be released from the 6-month sentence if he provides a passcode that unlocks the phone.
On the same day that Wheeler was taken into custody, a different judge in Florida made a contrary ruling.
Police believe that Wesley Victor has texts on his phone that will prove he was involved in an extortion plot. Wesley was arrested for this crime 10-months ago and claims that he doesn’t remember the code. A judge ruled that there’s no way to prove that he does remember and decided not to hold him in contempt of court.
Police believe that Victor conspired with his girlfriend, Hencha Voigt. She could be charged with contempt of court. Like Wheeler, Voigt provided a passcode that did not unlock her phone.
How do you feel about this situation? Should we have to give up our passcodes or should law enforcement find another way to get evidence? And if the Supreme Court eventually rules that we do need to provide them, will “forgetting” your passcode become a get out of jail free card? Tell me your thoughts in the comments section below.