Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Exigent Seizure of a Laptop

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires, as its default position, that officers obtain a warrant – a search (and seizure) warrant before they search a place and seize evidence. 

As I’ve also noted, officers do not have to get a warrant if they can rely an exception to the default warrant requirement, one of which is “exigent circumstances.” And as Wikipedia explains, exigent circumstances exist when officers have probable cause to believe that if they do not quickly (i.e., without getting a warrant), human life or safety will be in danger, a suspect may escape and/or evidence may be destroyed.

That brings us to U.S. v. Brown, __ F.3d __, 2012 WL 6052019 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit 2012). After being convicted of “receiving visual depictions involving the use of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct . . . in violation of 18 U.S. Code § 2252(a)(2)” and sentenced to “to 144 months in prison and ten years of supervised release”, Daniel J. Brown appealed.  U.S. v. Brown, supra. On appeal, he argued that the district court judge who had the case erred in denying his motion to suppress certain evidence.  U.S. v. Brown, supra.

To understand the suppression motion and why the district court judge did not grant it, it is necessary to understand how the case arose.  According to this opinion, it began in May of 2009, when

Detective Nicholas Rudman of the Charlottesville (Virginia) Police Department, who was assigned to investigate internet crimes against children, began an investigation of an internet protocol (`IP’) address associated with a computer that had downloaded files containing child pornography.

Those files were identified to Rudman by what is known as `hash value,’ rather than by a proper name. Rudman recognized the hash values of the files as corresponding to those which, he knew from prior experience, contained child pornography. The pornographic files had been transmitted over the Internet through peer-to-peer (file sharing) networks, where users are able to download each others' digital files.

U.S. v. Brown, supra.

Rudman’s investigation revealed that the

subscriber of the IP address was Medical Transport, LLC, a private ambulance business located in Charlottesville. Based on information obtained from the company's manager, Rudman and Detective Todd Lucas were able to narrow the focus of their investigation to Brown and Justin Yarboro, who worked together and were always on duty at Medical Transport when the files were downloaded.

Using the information they had discovered, the detectives secured a search warrant on June 17, 2009, for Medical Transport's headquarters. Rudman and Lucas, joined by Detectives Lisa Reeves and Michael Flaherty, executed the search warrant that day while Brown and Yarboro were on duty.

U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

The search of Medical Transport’s building did not reveal “any computers or electronic equipment that were relevant to” the investigation.  U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

While the officers were executing the warrant at the Medical Transport building, Brown and Yarboro were out on a call in an ambulance.  U.S. v. Brown, supra.  When the two returned to Medical Transport, they “pulled the ambulance to the front of the building” and got out.  U.S. v. Brown, supra.  The detectives “promptly approached” the two and identified themselves “as officers of the Charlottesville Police Department investigating Internet crimes against children.” U.S. v. Brown, supra.  Rudman then asked Brown and Yarboro,

`Do you guys have any laptops in your vehicle?’ When Brown responded in the affirmative, Rudman asked, `Can you get those for us?’  Brown complied, retrieving his laptop, which Rudman took out of Brown's hands and handed to Flaherty for inspection.

Brown and Yarboro were then brought into the Medical Transport building and interviewed separately. Rudman conducted the interview of Yarboro, who was the initial focus of the investigation because he was younger than Brown and was presumably more computer savvy. Lucas simultaneously interviewed Brown, and quickly realized that Brown was the more likely suspect of the two.

U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

Detective Reeves, who was present when Brown’s interview began,

also deduced that Brown was more likely to have downloaded the files. She promptly left the interview room to interrupt Rudman's interview of Yarboro and lead Rudman to where Lucas was interviewing Brown. Rudman explained that he was present to ask about child pornography. During the interview, Rudman showed Brown documents from the investigation indicating that files containing child pornography had been downloaded at Medical Transport's IP address.

Brown soon admitted that his laptop was the computer that had been involved, and he acknowledged searching for child pornography by computer on and off for a couple of years, using search terms like `daughter,’ `incest,’ and `PTHC’ (pre-teen hard core). The detectives thereafter concluded the interview.

Having seized Brown's laptop, the detectives procured a second search warrant, authorizing them to search the laptop itself. The laptop was found to contain videos and images of child pornography.

U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

Brown’s appellate brief notes that the laptop search “revealed internet activity, four videos, and the remnants of deleted images indicative of child pornography”.  Brief of the Appellant, U.S. v. Brown, 2012 WL 710678.  It also notes that this “evidence was the basis of the government's case against” him. Brief of the Appellant, supra.

Brown was indicted for receiving child pornography and, as noted above, moved to suppress evidence.  U.S. v. Brown, supra.  In his motion, Brown argued that the

search warrant for Medical Transport did not authorize a seizure of Brown's laptop because the laptop was not found in the Medical Transport building. The motion contended that the warrant only authorized the search of `the business of Medical Transport,’ and specifically identified and described the building, which was located on Harris Street in Charlottesville.

The motion maintained that the warrant allowed the detectives to search for computers, electronic storage devices, and employee records relating to scheduling, but did not authorize a search of either Brown or the ambulance outside the building.

U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

More precisely, Brown’s motion to suppress argued that

`[n]either Brown nor the computer was at the location the warrant authorized for search. Officer Rudman's statements reveal that the CPD officers' zeal to obtain the subject of the warrant led them to disregard their authority to search for it. . . . Here, the warrant clearly allows for search inside a specific building but officers chose to search a person and vehicle outside of the building. Thus, the officers found what they were looking for but they did not find it in an area where they were constitutionally permitted to look.’

U.S. v. Brown, supra (quoting Brown’s motion to suppress).

The district court judge denied the motion to suppress before the trial began and again, when Brown renewed it at the close of the prosecution’s evidence.   U.S. v. Brown, supra.  On appeal, Brown argued that the judge “erred” in not holding “an evidentiary hearing prior to denying the motion.”  U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

More specifically, Brown contends that the court should have assessed whether the seizure of his laptop by the officers was reasonable. . . .In its response brief, the government asserts that exigent circumstances existed to justify the officers' seizure of the laptop.

U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

The prosecution did not contest Brown's assertion that the search warrant for the Medical Transport building failed to authorize a search or seizure of Brown's person or the ambulance.”  U.S. v. Brown, supra. The Court of Appeals therefore noted that “rather than engaging in an analysis of the scope of the warrant (which is not in the record), we will proceed on the proposition that the seizure of Brown's laptop was warrantless.”  U.S. v. Brown, supra.  Since the seizure was not conducted pursuant to a warrant, it would violate the 4th Amendment unless it was justified by one of the warrant exceptions.

The court began its analysis of Brown’s argument by noting that the “exigent circumstances that may justify a warrantless seizure include . . . imminent destruction of evidence.”  U.S. v. Brown, supra.  It then explained that the Supreme Court has

recognized that, with respect to warrantless seizures, `the 4th Amendment requires only that the steps preceding the seizure be lawful.’ [Kentucky v. King, 131 S.Ct. 1849 (2011).] In other words, `the exigent circumstances rule applies when the police do not gain entry to premises by means of an actual or threatened violation of the 4th Amendment.’ Kentucky v. King, supra.

Here, the Charlottesville detectives had probable cause to believe child pornography was being downloaded at the Medical Transport building, and they could reasonably believe that it was being downloaded at that location by either Brown or Yarboro.

The detectives' showing of probable cause -- accepted and endorsed by the magistrate judge in issuing the search warrant for the building -- came from tracing the illegal files to the Medical Transport IP address and learning from Medical Transport's manager that Brown and Yarboro were the only employees working at the time that the files were downloaded.

The detectives' entry onto the company's property was authorized by the search warrant, and their subsequent inquiries regarding laptop computers possessed by Brown and Yarboro, were therefore lawful and proper.

U.S. v. Brown, supra. 

The Court of Appeals also noted that based on their investigation, the detectives had

probable cause to believe that any computer used by either Brown or Yarboro during their work shifts at Medical Transport harbored evidence of child pornography. Accordingly, when the Charlottesville detectives informed Brown they were investigating Internet crimes against children, they had probable cause to believe that Brown's laptop, which he possessed during his work shift, contained evidence of child pornography. See U.S. v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983) (4th Amendment permits a warrantless seizure of property `[w]here . . . authorities have probable cause to believe [the property] holds contraband or evidence of a crime . . . , if the exigencies of the circumstances demand it’).

Following up on Brown's response, it was entirely reasonable for the officers to seize Brown's laptop—as they did—to prevent either it or its contents from being damaged or destroyed. . . .

U.S. v. Brown, supra (emphasis in the original).

The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress and affirmed Brown’s conviction and sentence.  U.S. v. Brown, supra.  

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