U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Man Held in Contempt for Refusing to Unlock Devices in Child Porn Case

A federal appeals court affirmed a contempt ruling against a man who refused to give authorities passwords to his electronic devices known to have child pornography.

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant was in contempt of a trial court order to provide the passwords. The defendant claimed a right against self-incrimination, but the appellate court said the government already knew the devices contained child pornography and that it was "a foregone conclusion" the defendant knew the passwords.

"Based upon the testimony presented at the contempt proceeding, that fact is a foregone conclusion," Judge Thomas Vanaskie wrote for the court in United States of America v. Apple MacPro Computer.

Defendant Knew Passwords

At the contempt hearing, the prosecutors presented several witnesses to support its contempt case. Doe's sister testified that Doe had showed her hundreds of child pornography images on his Mac Pro computer by entering passwords from memory.

Also, a detective who executed the original search warrant stated that Doe did not provide his password at the time because he wanted to prevent the police from accessing his computer. Forensic examination revealed about 20 images of child pornography and log files to child porn web sites, but most of the files were encrypted.

Upon hearing the evidence, the trial judge found the defendant in contempt for refusing to give up the passwords to decrypt the files.

Foregone Conclusion He Knew

"It is important to note that we are not concluding that the Government's knowledge of the content of the devices is necessarily the correct focus of the "foregone conclusion," the judges said.

They said the foregone conclusion rule, which provides an exception to the Fifth Amendment, applied in that prosecutors already knew the content of the devices and the defendant was able to provide the passwords but refused to do so.

"Doe never asserted an inability to remember the passwords at that time," the appellate panel said. "Doe presented no evidence to explain his failure to comply or to challenge the evidence brought by the Government."

The court then affirmed the contempt finding, holding the defendant in custody until he complies with the order to provide the passwords to the encrypted files. He had been in custody for 18 months at the time of the decision.

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