Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Searching a Pastor's Computer

In State v. Young, 974 So.2d 601 (Fla. App. 2008), a Florida court of appeals had to decide whether a search of a minister’s office was valid under the Fourth Amendment.

As I’ve mentioned before, consent is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. That is, if someone consents to have their property searched, officers do not need to get a search warrant; the consent in effect waives the requirement of a warrant.

To be valid, consent must be voluntary (not coerced) and must be given by someone with authority to consent to the search.
Someone who owns or uses property can give valid consent to a search.

“Use” means that the person who consents either is the sole user of the property or is a joint user of the property. Spouses, for example, can each consent to the search of the property they share and the consent will justify the search (unless the other spouse is present and refuses to consent).

Young was the pastor of a small church in Florida. According to the Florida court of appeals' opinion, the
church provided Young with a desktop computer and a private office. Although the computer was provided to Young for use in connection with his duties at the church, there was no official policy regarding the use of the computer or others' access to it. . . . This office had a special lock that could not be opened with the Church's master key. Three keys to Young's office existed. Young kept two of the keys, and the church administrator kept the third key, which she stored in a locked credenza drawer in her office.
State v. Young, supra.

As to the events leading to the search, and to Young’s being charged with "viewing child pornography", according to the Florida Times-Union, it all began when the church’s administrator got a call from the church's Internet service provider. The caller said spam had been linked to the church's Internet protocol address. The church administrator then ran a “spybot” program on the church's computers. When she ran the program on Young's computer, she saw “some very questionable [w]eb site addresses.” The church administrator then contacted a member of the staff parish and an information technology person to set up a time to have the computer examined. State v. Young, supra.
Later, the chairperson of staff parish relations, Kenneth Moreland, contacted Richard Neal, district superintendent of the Church, to tell him what had happened. State v. Young, supra. After discussing the matter with the bishop and getting approval for the decision, Neal instructed Moreland to contact law enforcement officials and allow them to see the computer. The next morning Neal instructed Young not to return to the church until the two could meet and discuss the situation. When officers arrived at the church, Moreland unlocked Young's office and signed `consent to search' forms for the office and computer. Young arrived at the church during the morning when the officers were there. Moreland and an officer instructed Young to leave the property immediately, and he complied.
State v. Young, supra.

The officers apparently found incriminating evidence that, at least in part, consisted of websites Young had bookmarked on his office computer. They interviewed him, he made incriminating statements, and charges were filed, after which he because he moved to suppress evidence found in his office. The court held a hearing on the motion.

The officers who searched the computer testified that they understood Moreland to be a “representative of the church” whose authority to consent was based on instructions from a church supervisor. State v. Young, supra.
Neither of them talked to Moreland's supervisor or asked Moreland further questions about his authority before the search began. One officer said she had spoken with Neal after she was inside Young's office. At the time, she knew Neal had never used Young's computer, did not work in Young's office, and did not keep property there. (Remember, joint use is a basis for being able t consent.) Neal testified to the same effect. Moreland testified that he did not work in Young's office and did not keep belongings there. Neal, though, testified that he had authority to consent to the search and to instruct Young to stay away from the church under the Church’s Book of Discipline, by which Young had agreed to be bound when he was ordained.
State v. Young, supra.

The issue in the case was whether the search of the computer in Young’s office was valid as a consent search. I get the sense that the viability of the charges (whatever they were) against Young depended on the evidence found there, so the issue was crucial.
The trial court found that none of the church personnel had authority to consent to the search of Young’s office, and the court of appeals agreed.

The church personnel who consented clearly did not use the office jointly with Young; and they apparently made that clear to the officers, so the officers could not have believed they had the authority to consent to a search of his office. As the court of appeals explained, although
the church owned the computer, Young was the sole regular user. Although the church administrator performed maintenance on the computer, there was no evidence that she or anyone other than Young stored personal files on the computer or used it for any purpose other than maintenance. There was no policy informing Young that others at the church could enter his office and view the contents of his computer. The only way to access the computer to view its contents was to enter through the locked office door. It is clear under these circumstances that the church trusted Young to use the computer appropriately and that it gave no indication that the computer would be searched by anyone at the church. The fact that Young violated this trust does not detract from a proper analysis of whether he had a legitimate reason to expect that others would not enter his office and inspect the computer.
State v. Young, supra.

The evidence found in Young’s office was suppressed, and so were the incriminating comments he made to the officers, because they derived from (were the fruit of the poisonous tree of) the illegal search of his office. I assume the charges, whatever they were, were dismissed.

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