Police push legal boundaries to get into cellphones

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William Montanez is used to getting stopped by the police in Tampa, Florida, for small-time traffic and marijuana violations; it’s happened more than a dozen times. When they pulled him over last June, he didn’t try to hide his pot, telling officers, “Yeah, I smoke it, there’s a joint in the center console, you gonna arrest me for that?”

They did arrest him, not only for the marijuana but also for two small bottles they believed contained THC oil — a felony — and for having a firearm while committing that felony (they found a handgun in the glove box).

Then things got testy.

As they confiscated his two iPhones, a text message popped up on the locked screen of one of them: “OMG, did they find it?” The officers demanded his passcodes, warning him they’d get warrants to search the cellphones. Montanez suspected that police were trying to fish for evidence of illegal activity. He also didn’t want them seeing more personal things, including intimate pictures of his girlfriend. So he refused, and was locked up on the drug and firearms charges.

William MontanezCourtesy of William Montanez

Five days later, after Montanez was bailed out of jail, a deputy from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office tracked him down, handed him the warrants and demanded the phone passcodes. Again, Montanez refused. Prosecutors went to a judge, who ordered him locked up again for contempt of court.

“I felt like they were violating me. They can’t do that,” Montanez, 25, recalled recently. “F— y’all. I ain’t done nothing wrong. They wanted to get in the phone for what?”

He paid a steep price, spending 44 days behind bars before the THC and gun charges were dropped, the contempt order got tossed and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor pot charge. And yet he regrets nothing, because he now sees his defiance as taking a stand against the abuse of his rights.

“The world should know that what they’re doing out here is crazy,” Montanez said. The police never got into his phones.

While few would choose jail, Montanez’s decision reflects a growing resistance to law enforcement’s power to peer into Americans’ digital lives. The main portals into that activity are cellphones, which are protected from prying eyes by encryption, with passcodes the only way in.

As police now routinely seek access to people’s cellphones, privacy advocates see a dangerous erosion of Americans’ rights, with courts scrambling to keep up.

“It’s becoming harder to escape the reach of police using technology that didn’t exist before,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, the associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “And now we are in the position of trying to walk that back and stem the tide.”

While courts have determined that police need a warrant to search a cellphone, the question of whether police can force someone to share a passcode is far from settled, with no laws on the books and a confusing patchwork of differing judicial decisions. Last month, the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue. The state supreme courts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are considering similar cases.

As this legal battle unfolds, police keep pursuing new ways of breaking into cellphones if the owners don’t cooperate — or are enlisting help from technology firms that can do it for them. This has put them at odds with cellphone makers, all of whom continually update their products to make them harder for hackers or anyone else to break into.

But the hacking techniques are imperfect and expensive, and not all law enforcement agencies have them. That is why officials say compelling suspects to unlock their cellphones is essential to police work. Making the tactic more difficult, they say, would tilt justice in favor of criminals.

“It would have an extreme chilling effect on our ability to thoroughly investigate and bring many, many cases, including violent offenses,” said Hillar Moore, the district attorney in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who got the FBI’s help in breaking into a cellphone belonging to a suspect in a deadly Louisiana State University fraternity hazing ritual. “It would basically shut the door.”

Clashes over passcodes

In the part of Florida where Montanez lives, authorities are guided by a case involving an upskirt photo.

A young mother shopping at a Target store in Sarasota in July 2014 noticed a man taking a picture of her with his phone while crouching on the floor. She confronted him. He fled. Two days later, police arrested Aaron Stahl and charged him with video voyeurism.

Authorities got a search warrant for Stahl’s iPhone, but he wouldn’t give them the passcode, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. A trial judge ruled in his favor, but a state appellate court reversed the decision in December 2016, saying Stahl had to provide the code. Facing the possibility of getting convicted at trial and sentenced to prison, Stahl agreed to plead no contest in exchange for probation.

While Stahl did not provide the passcode in the end, prosecutors still rely on the precedent established by the appellate ruling to compel others to turn over their passcodes under the threat of jail.

“Up until that point you could be a pedophile or a child pornogropher and carry around the fruits of your crime in front of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges and taunt them with fact that they couldn’t get the passcode,” said Cynthia Meiners, who prosecuted Stahl at the 12th Judicial Circuit State’s Attorney’s Office. “You could say, ‘I’m a child pornographer and it’s on my phone but I’m not giving you my passcode because I would be incriminating myself.’”



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