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Was it Lawful For a Florida Man to Be Jailed For Refusing to Unlock His Phone?

iphone passcode
A Florida man was jailed this week after refusing to unlock his cell phone. Was it lawful for officers to stop him in the first place?

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What started as a routine traffic stop has quickly escalated into a civil rights case in a Florida courtroom.  A man was jailed for failing to unlock his phone.  Should he have been jailed in the first place?  William Montanez was given 180 days in jail by a judge after he was asked to unlock two separate phones seized from him by police. Montanez told the court that he couldn’t remember the passwords, so the judge found him in civil contempt and threw him in jail.  I wonder if he would have had more grounds to just simply refuse.  Who can’t remember the password to their phone?  Sure, I regularly type in the wrong password to my MacBook on a daily basis, but it’s more of a habit thing than not remembering what the password is.

The weirdest part about Montanez’s predicament is that it started with a traffic stop.  According to an emergency writ filed by Montanez’s lawyer, he was pulled over by police for not properly yielding while pulling out of a driveway.  The officers making the stop, then asked to search his car, so the police brought in a drug-sniffing dog.  Before I go any further with this story, I just want to point out how absurd the traffic stop is to start, and the fact that the officers then asked to search the car.  I mean, does that even make sense?

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What might make even less sense, is that the emergency writ says that the canine unit was contacted before the police even spoke to Montanez during the stop.  In 2015, the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Rodriguez v. United States made clear that police are not to turn traffic stops into investigations of other possible infractions. Police have to have reason to believe another crime has been committed in order to investigate further, and refusing to allow law enforcement to search your car is not a valid reason for suspicion.

As you can imagine, the dog discovered small amounts of marijuana and THC oil.  Montanez admitted that those belonged to him.  There was a concealed handgun and two cell phones.  When law enforcement officials asked him to unlock the phones, he refused. The police then got a search warrant for the devices, claiming that they contain evidence related to the possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.  What’s interesting is that Montanez already admitted to these belonging to him, so why do they need to search the cell phones?  It sounds like a fishing expedition as they say on hokey crime shows.

traffic stop

Montanez will now spend the next six months in jail for not allowing police to go through his phones.  Who is right in this case?  To start, I think the laws in this country are ridiculous when it comes to marijuana for personal use.  Further to that, I think it’s ridiculous that the police stopped him for failing to yield properly.  Lastly, once he admitted to the marijuana and THC oil, they should have left it alone, but it’s like they were trying to find something else.  Which may or may not have been there.  We will never know.

I often hate taking this stance, because it sounds like I’m siding with criminals.  But the truth is the rules in this country are antiquated and arbitrary for these kinds of things.  Or if the rules aren’t antiquated or arbitrary, the police aren’t following them, and what we have is chaos.  Maybe I’m a bit dramatic, but I’m tired of hearing that people are going to jail for petty things like refusing to unlock a phone.  It’s 2018, which means its time for these laws to get changed.  But given who is leading the current administration, I doubt that’s going to happen.

 

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