What started as a routine traffic stop has quickly escalated into a civil rights case in a Florida courtroom after a man was put behind bars this week for failing to unlock his phone.
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, according to Fox 13 News in Tampa Bay, Florida.
The strangest 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 on June 21 for not properly yielding while pulling out of a driveway. The officers making the stop asked to search his car, which he refused, so the police brought in a drug-sniffing dog.
It’s worth noting that the emergency writ says the canine unit was contacted before police spoke to Montanez during the stop, which seems a bit suspicious. 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.
The dog discovered small amounts of weed (about 4.5 grams) and THC oil, which Montanez admitted belonged to him. The police also found a concealed handgun, which supposedly belonged to his mom, and two cellphones. When law enforcement asked Montanez to unlock the phones—apparently after seeing a text message that read “OMG did they find it” on the screen—he denied the request.
The police got a search warrant for the devices, claiming that they contain evidence of “Possession of Cannabis Less Than 20 grams” and “Possession of Drug Paraphernalia”—both of which Montanez already admitted to, which makes it unclear why the cops still want to search the phone to prove the charges.
It was that warrant that brought Montanez to court, where the judge asked him to unlock the phones, which he again refused—or simply couldn’t do because he didn’t remember the passcodes for the devices. Now he’ll spend nearly the next six months in jail for not allowing police to dig through his phones for evidence they don’t seem to need.
Montanez’s lawyer, Patrick Leduc, filed an emergency petition to challenge the judge’s contempt ruling and raise issues with the warrant, but the situation is pretty damn sticky. The police did go through the process of getting a warrant to search the phone as they are supposed to do, but it seems the circumstances that led up to that point were questionable at best.
Leduc also said his client’s case should serve as a warning to everyone, per Fox 13 News:
“If they arrest you for anything — whether it’s drugs, guns, you name it — and an electronic device is nearby, they can get a search warrant and search it. And if you don’t provide that information to search it, to unlock, because you want to keep the information private, we’ll put you in jail,” said Leduc.