A Florida man was sentenced to nearly six months behind bars Tuesday for failing to give investigators the password needed to unlock his Android smartphone.
Christopher Wheeler, 41, was ordered to spend 180 days in jail Tuesday for a contempt-of-court conviction handed down earlier this month for failing to open his phone to authorities probing a child abuse case involving his 8-year-old daughter.
Mr. Wheeler was arrested on March 6 for aggravated child abuse, domestic violence and child neglect after detectives say he repeatedly assaulted his daughter causing “severe bruising, swelling and scratches,” according to documents filed in Broward Circuit Court.
Police seized an Android smartphone from Mr. Wheeler at the time of his arrest and argued it contains photographic evidence of his alleged crimes. The device is password-protected, however, and Mr. Wheeler has failed so far to cough up the credentials needed for authorities to gain access.
Circuit Judge Michael Rothschild held Mr. Wheeler in contempt on May 12 and handed down the 180-day jail stint during a sentencing hearing Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, the Miami Herald first reported.
“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 this month.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, then-FBI Director James B. Comey said 46 percent of the more than 6,000 smartphones and tablets seized by federal investigators during a recent six-month span were protected by uncrackable passwords.
“That means half of the devices that we encounter in terrorism cases, in counterintelligence cases, in gang cases, in child pornography cases, cannot be opened with any technique,” Mr. Comey said.
Apple and Google began letting customers encrypt iOS and Android devices, respectively, in 2015, setting the stage for a widely reported showdown early last year between the FBI and Apple. Authorities were unable to access the contents of an iPhone previously owned by Syed Farook, one-half of the married couple accused of conducting a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. The FBI eventually cracked into the phone with the assistance of an undisclosed third-party, albeit not without suing Apple in federal court.
Mr. Wheeler provided authorities with a password last month, but it didn’t unlock his device, according to court filings.
“I swear, under oath, I’ve given them the password,” Mr. Wheeler said at Tuesday’s hearing, the Herald reported.
The Florida Court of Appeal’s 2nd District ruled last year that prosecutors may compel a suspected video voyeur to produce their iPhone passcode to investigators. The case has yet to be heard by the state Supreme Court.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Wheeler’s daughter previously told investigators: “Daddy takes pictures of me all the time with his phone.”
“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 unsuccessfully argued earlier this year in an effort to quash the request. “It forces him to produce contents of his phone that Mr. Wheeler at no time admitted to authorities existed.”
An attorney for Mr. Wheeler was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.