Friday, November 02, 2012

Civil Rights, “Clearly Established Law” and the Computer Search

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This post examines an opinion issued by a federal district court judge in Alabama in a case that “involves the allegedly illegal search and seizure of . . . Jerry Bennett Hatfield's store and computer.”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, 2012 WL 5187770 (U.S. District Court for the Middle Districtof Alabama 2012).

According to the opinion, Hatfield runs a

car stereo store in Prattville called Powerhouse Audio. Sometimes [he] accepts trade-ins, which are not always the fruit of honest labor. For instance, when a couple walked into Powerhouse Audio toting a varmint rifle and looking for stereo equipment, Hatfield seized the opportunity and made a deal: The couple got a stereo, and Hatfield, a rifle. Hindsight will show the couple got the better of that deal.

But Hatfield was not one to accept items indiscriminately. On July 21, 2009, shortly after [he] traded for the rifle, a man came into Powerhouse Audio trying to sell a car stereo. Hatfield prudently declined the offer, and before the man left the store a Prattville police officer showed up. With the help of Mike Heath, a deputy of the Autauga County Sheriff, the officer determined the stereo was stolen, and the man attempting to sell it was placed under arrest.

As the investigation was winding down, Mr. Hatfield pulled out his new rifle and asked Deputy Heath if it, too, might be stolen goods. . . . As it happened, the rifle had been stolen five months earlier, along with the all-terrain vehicle it had been sitting in.

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.

The opinion explains that at some point while all this was going on, John McDaniel, a

Lieutenant with the Prattville Police Department, arrived on the scene to investigate. Given the circumstances, McDaniel thought it best to check Hatfield's inventory for other stolen merchandise. Hatfield signed a consent form allowing the police to search his business.  Under McDaniel's direction, the police began to check serial numbers on Hatfield's inventory to determine how much of it had been reported stolen.

All was going well until Ty Jones and Jim Steele arrived with Hobbs, a Labrador retriever. Hobbs is not a party to this action. Steele and Hobbs began to search the store for narcotics. Hatfield . . . thought it inappropriate to have a dog in his store with customers around and `adamantly objected’ to Hobbs's presence. . . . McDaniel met those objections with an ultimatum, giving Hatfield the option of doing things the easy way (in which [he] would calm down and the search would continue) or the hard way (in which Hatfield would be arrested, the police would get a warrant, and the search would continue). Hatfield chose the hard way.

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.

While Hatfield “was on his way to jail for possession of a stolen firearm,” McDaniel was obtaining a search warrant for his store.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  About two hours

after Hatfield's arrest, a municipal judge signed a warrant authorizing the police to search Powerhouse Audio for, among other things, `photographs depicting [juveniles illegally engaging in sexual acts].’ . . . Though the parties disagree about what happened during the interim, Hatfield claims the police stayed in the store and continued the search behind locked doors (but open windows). It is undisputed . . . that the search continued after the warrant was obtained, and that the officers seized items including cameras, bills of sale, guns, and drug paraphernalia. The police also seized Hatfield's computer. At some point during the warrant search, Hatfield's girlfriend, Kandi Neal, told McDaniel there was child pornography on the computer. . . .

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.

The opinion says a “little over a week” after the officers searched Powerhouse Audio,


Sergeant Gary Graves of the Prattville Police started to investigate Neal's allegation. On July 29, 2009, a municipal judge issued a second warrant, this one authorizing the search of Hatfield's computer and commanding Sergeant Graves to `[s]eize, tabulate and make return according to law the following property and things as set forth in this search warrant and make due return of this warrant and an inventory of all property seized thereunder . . . within 10 days as required by law.’ . . .

Graves, however, had more pressing matters to attend to: At that time `the Police department was overwhelmed with a project of installing mobile data computers into each police automobile pursuant to a communications grant.’ . . . It was Graves's job to ensure the systems were installed correctly. As a result, he `was required to make his computer forensics work a second priority.’ . . . It is undisputed that Graves did not perform the search of Hatfield's computer within ten days.

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.

On June 21, 2010, “nearly a year after Hatfield's computer was seized,” Graves finally “performed a forensic examination on the computer.”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra. The search “revealed hundreds of sexually explicit pictures, including some with subjects” whom Graves “believed to be under the age of seventeen.”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.

On July 1, 2010, Hatfield was arrested and “charged with twenty counts of possession of child pornography in violation of state law.” Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  At a preliminary hearing on September 8, a municipal judge found that the charges were supported by probable cause. Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra. The circuit court, however, found that the  “search of Powerhouse Audio was not supported by probable cause and granted Hatfield's motion to suppress all evidence seized during that search (including the computer).” Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  Given that ruling, the county District Attorney “decided there was no longer sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge against Hatfield and agreed to dismiss the charges.” Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.    On July 19, 2011, “the case was nol prossed on motion of the district attorney, and Hatfield was a free man.”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  

On July 21, 2011, Hatfield filed a federal civil rights suit against McDaniel, Graves, Furlong and the City of Prattville, claiming the three individual defendants had violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and also claiming that all of the defendants were liable to him for negligence.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  As Wikipedia explains, and as I have noted in prior posts, 42 U.S. Code § 1983 creates a civil cause of action for violation of someone’s “rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” of the United States.  (Hatfield also sued Heath, Jones and Steele, but they were dismissed earlier in the process.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.)  

And at some point this year, McDaniel, Graves and Furlong moved for summary judgment on Hatfield’s civil rights suit against them.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  As Wikipedia explains, in U.S. civil practice, a judge can enter summary judgment on a cause (or causes) of action, “effectively holding that no trial will be necessary” to resolve the issues allegedly in dispute.  As Wikipedia also notes, and as I have explained in prior posts, summary judgment is proper when

1.     there are no disputes of `material’ fact requiring a trial to resolve, and
2.     in applying the law to the undisputed facts, one party is clearly entitled to judgment.

In this opinion, the judge is ruling on their motion.

The first issue he addressed is whether the search of Powerhouse Audio violated Hatfield’s rights under the 4th Amendment.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  The judge explained that the events at the store could divided into “three time periods”. 

First, there was the consent search, during which officers searched for stolen merchandise in Powerhouse Audio pursuant to Hatfield's written consent. After the drug dog arrived, . . . Hatfield argues that he withdrew consent, and it is undisputed that he was arrested shortly thereafter. About two hours after the arrest, McDaniel obtained a warrant, and the search of Powerhouse Audio continued. 

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  Hatfield produced evidence that the officers stayed in the store while waiting for the warrant and that at least one officer moved “`a box around sideways and . . . wrote something down.’”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987), that an officer’s moving items was a 4th Amendment search that required a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement, this evidence raised a material issue of fact that could not be disposed of on summary judgment.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  

The other issue was the search of Hatfield’s computer.  Hatfield argued that because Alabama Code § 15-5-12 states that a warrant not executed within ten days is void and because Graves did not search his computer for more than a year, Graves violated “clearly established law” by conducting the search.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  That was relevant because, as Wikipedia explains, in a civil rights suit an official is immune from liability unless his/her conduct violated clearly established law. 

The judge found that if, “as appears to be the case, execution of a warrant for electronically stored information only requires physical seizure of the computer, it follows that the warrant authorizing the search of Hatfield's computer was executed immediately upon its issuance.”   Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  He therefore held that Hatfield could not demonstrate that Graves violated clearly established law with regard to the execution of the warrant.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  

Hatfield also claimed Graves’ conduct violated clearly established law “because both the warrant authorizing the search and its supporting affidavit were so clearly deficient that any search under the authority of that warrant clearly violated the 4th Amendment.”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  The judge noted that for Graves to be held liable, the warrant application had to be “`so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable.’” Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986)).

The judge then explained that while the affidavit Graves submitted in support of his request for a warrant to search Hatfield’s computer “contains much detail about Graves's knowledge, training, and experience”, it provided little in the way of probable cause.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  These allegations appear to be what Graves’ affidavit offered to establish probable cause to search the computer:

The facts tending to establish the foregoing grounds for the issuance of a search warrant are as follows: In the month of July 2009 Lt. McDaniel executed a search warrant at 1706 East Main Street, Prattville, Alabama.

Further probable cause being that Sgt. Graves received a laptop computer from Lt. McDaniel which was a Dell laptop. This laptop was seized during the search warrant.

Further probable cause being Lt. McDaniel talked to a person at the store and she stated that there were pictures of children on this computer.


Further probable cause being that this laptop was seized under another search warrant and brought to the Computer Forensics Unit for Examination.

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  

The judge found that while these allegations “might establish probable cause to believe there were files on a seized computer, some of which were pictures of children”, the affidavit did not “allege any facts . . . that suggest there was probable cause to believe there was evidence of a crime on the computer.”  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  He also explained that given “controlling precedent,” Graves’ affidavit failed to establish

even probable cause to believe there would be pictures of children, pornographic or otherwise, on Hatfield's computer. The only fact supporting such a conclusion is the statement of an unidentified woman at the scene, because the affidavit did not reveal Neal's identity but only referred to her as `a person that was at the store.’ . . .

[A] statement from an anonymous source may establish probable cause for a search warrant, but only so long as `given all the circumstances set forth in the affidavit . . ., including the “veracity” and “basis of knowledge” of persons supplying hearsay information, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.’ Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983).

But here the only fact tending to establish probable cause is the anonymous statement, and there is absolutely nothing in the affidavit supporting the veracity or basis of knowledge of the woman who made it. The Supreme Court has held a sworn statement that officers “received reliable information from a credible person” cannot alone support probable cause. Id. at 239. The statement here lacks even a conclusory assurance of reliability and credibility, so it could not have provided probable cause for a search warrant.

Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra (emphasis in the original). 

The judge therefore found that Hatfield’s “Hatfield's evidence shows his computer was searched pursuant to a facially void warrant”, and “[t]hat conduct, if established at trial, constitutes a violation of clearly established law”.  Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  Since there were “material issues of fact” with regard to this claim, the judge denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Hatfield’s 4th Amendment claims. Hatfield v. McDaniel, supra.  

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