Monday, July 21, 2014

The Juvenile, the Computer and Exigent Circumstances

A juvenile court judge in Oregon held that “J.C.L.”, a minor whose age is not given in the opinion this post examines, was “within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for conduct that, if committed by an adult, would constitute the criminal offenses of first-degree encouraging child sexual abuse, Oregon Revised Statutes § 163.684(1)(a)(A) (2007), (Counts 1 and 3) and second-degree encouraging child sexual abuse, Oregon Revised Statutes§163.686 (2007) (Counts 2 and 4).”  In re J.C.L., 261 Or.App. 692 (Oregon Court of Appeals 2014).
J.C.L. appealed, arguing, among other things, that “the juvenile court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence of child pornography found on his computer, which was seized without a warrant from a computer repair person.”  In re J.C.L., supra. The Court of Appeals began its opinion by explaining how J.C.L. came before the juvenile court judge.  In re J.C.L., supra. But before I get into that, I need to note that in this blog post I have replaced the court’s use of “youth” to refer to J.C.L. with his initials.  I, at least, found the repeated use of “youth” irritating.
This is how the case began:
J.C.L. was 16 years of age. . . . In March 2007, [his] uncle, Conahan, came to the attention of police when they linked him to the IP address of a computer that was downloading child pornography. In May 2007, police detective Elliott executed a search warrant at Conahan's residence. Based on images found on Conahan's computers and thumb drives, Elliott arrested Conahan for possession of child pornography. Conahan made statements to police that led them to investigate J.C.L.

J.C.L. had a computer in his bedroom. When it needed repairs, he sought help from Dutton, a high school student with an informal computer repair business. On several occasions, Dutton had visited J.C.L.'s home to repair his computer and saw Conahan at the house. In March 2007, Dutton took J.C.L.'s computer to his own home to repair it. Again, in May 2007, Dutton took J.C.L.'s computer to his home for repairs.

On May 23, 2007, two days after Elliott arrested Conahan, Elliott attempted unsuccessfully to contact J.C.L. He then went to Dutton's house, where, without a warrant, he seized J.C.L.'s computer and its hard drive.

Eight days later, police obtained a warrant to search J.C.L.'s computer. Detective Wiltse found installed on J.C.L.'s computer a software program called `Limewire,’ a `peer-to-peer’ network that allows users to search the “shared” folders and files of Limewire users whose computers are also connected to the Internet and running Limewire.

In a `shared’ folder on J.C.L.'s computer, Wiltse found images and videos of child pornography identical to the images and videos found on Conahan's thumb drive. The shared folders and files were marked `hidden,’ and they could not, in fact, be shared through Limewire. The state did not present evidence as to whether J.C.L.'s computer was connected to the Internet, nor did it present evidence that the hidden folders or files had ever been shared through Limewire.

Police took J.C.L. into custody, and he was charged with the [offenses noted above] for which the juvenile court ultimately found him to be within the court's jurisdiction. In a pretrial motion, J.C.L. moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless seizure of his computer, asserting that the seizure was not supported by one of the limited exceptions to the warrant requirement and therefore violated his rights against unreasonable searches and seizures under Article I, section 9, of the Oregon Constitution, and the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In re J.C.L., supra. 
As I noted in prior posts, and as Wikipedia explains, every U.S. state has its own constitution, which is binding on local law enforcement officers, among others.  A state constitutional provision cannot trump, i.e., override, a provision of the U.S. Constitution such as the 4th Amendment; the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution establishes the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes and federal treaties as the “supreme law of the land,” i.e., they trump state law. 
But a state constitutional provision that provides more protection than the U.S. Constitution – such as a state constitutional provision that provides more protection than the 4th Amendment – does apply to local law enforcement (absent countervailing circumstances) and can therefore provide more protection than, say, the 4th Amendment.  Check out this post if you want to read about a case in which that happened.
At the suppression hearing, Elliott, the detective who seized J.C.L.’s computer, testified
that, on May 21, 2007, when he had arrested Conahan, Conahan had explained how the child pornography came to be on his computer. Conahan said that, when he searched Limewire for music, Limewire would return images of child pornography and that, to avoid the return of pornographic images on subsequent searches, he had decided to download them to his computer.

He told Elliott that [J.C.L.] had experienced the same difficulty with Limewire and had unsuccessfully tried to help Conahan remove the child pornography from his computer. Unable to remove the images, [J.C.L.] had shown Conahan how to create `hidden’ folders on Limewire in which to store the images, to make them more discrete and less accessible. Conahan told Elliott that, in the past, he had taken his computer to Dutton to have the images removed.

Elliott testified that, when he went to Dutton's house on May 23, 2007, Dutton informed him that he was working on J.C.L.’s computer to remove a virus and had not seen any child pornography on the computer. Dutton told Elliott that, when J.C.L. had given him the computer for repair, [he] had told Dutton to back up everything, but that, on May 22, 2007 the day after Conahan's arrest – J.C.L. had called and requested Dutton delete the contents of the computer, including the back-ups. Dutton told Elliott he had scanned J.C.L.’s computer for viruses, but had not deleted anything yet.

Elliott saw J.C.L.’s hard drive had been removed from the computer tower and was connected to Dutton's computer by a cable and that Dutton had already created a back-up of J.C.L.’s hard drive. Based on Conahan's statements and J.C.L.’s recent request, Elliott believed there was child pornography on J.C.L.’s computer.

Given J.C.L.’s request and the fact his hard drive was presently connected to Dutton's computer, Elliott believed the destruction of evidence was imminent, and he seized J.C.L.’s computer and hard drive. Elliott then left, but returned to Dutton's home one hour later and obtained Dutton's consent for the seizure of his own computer.
In re J.C.L., supra. 
In denying J.C.L.’s motion to suppress, the juvenile court judge found that,
considered together, the information Elliott had obtained from Conahan and the timing of J.C.L.’s request to delete the contents of the computer and its back-up provided probable cause that there was child pornography on J.C.L.’s computer. The court concluded, further, that the warrantless seizure of his computer was justified by exigent circumstances, `especially given it was at the time connected to the computer of [Dutton,] who had the capacity to follow through on [J.C.L.’s] request to remove it all.’
In re J.C.L., supra. 
The case went to trial and, after both sides had presented all their evidence, J.C.L. moved for an acquittal.  In re J.C.L., supra.  The juvenile court denied the motion and, as noted above, found J.C.L. was within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.  In re J.C.L., supra. 
On appeal, J.C.L. argued, first, that his motion to suppress should have been granted  because the seizure of his computer was “not justified by either a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement.”  In re J.C.L., supra.  The court began its analysis of that argument by noting that the prosecution
has never disputed that Elliott seized J.C.L.’s computer when he took it from Dutton's home. Police may search or seize property without a warrant without violating the Oregon or federal constitutions when they have probable cause to believe that the property is evidence of a crime, upon a showing of exigent circumstances.  State v. Machuca, 347 Or. 644, 227 P.3d 729 (Oregon Supreme Court 2010) (warrantless search permissible if officer has probable cause to believe crime was committed and exigent circumstances exist). . . .

It is the state's burden to show exigency, by establishing both that the destruction of evidence was imminent and that a warrant could not have otherwise been expeditiously obtained. State v. Machuca, supra.  

Although, on appeal, J.C.L. concedes that Elliott had probable cause to believe that J.C.L.’s computer contained evidence of a crime, he contends that, contrary to the juvenile court's determination, no exigency required it to be seized without a warrant.
In re J.C.L., supra. 
The Court of Appeals began its analysis of the arguments by noting that “[e]xigent circumstances exist when a reasonable person in the police officer's position would determine under the circumstances that immediate action is necessary to prevent the disappearance, dissipation, or destruction of evidence. State v. Snow, 337 Or. 219, 94 P.3d 872 (Oregon Supreme Court 2004).” In re J.C.L., supra.  The court then took up the issues in this case, explaining that in
J.C.L.’s view, there was no exigency, because, in light of the circumstances then existing, it was not objectively reasonable for Elliott to conclude that Dutton might destroy the evidence on J.C.L.’s computer. J.C.L. emphasizes that Dutton had no reason to tamper with evidence, and that Dutton had been polite and cooperative and -- in fact -- had volunteered the information concerning J.C.L.’s request to delete the contents of the computer. 

J.C.L. contends that, in light of the absence of any indication that Dutton had engaged in wrongdoing, the fact J.C.L.’s hard drive was connected to Dutton's computer could not support a reasonable fear of imminent destruction of evidence and supported only the inference that Dutton was in the process of fixing J.C.L.’s computer. In his view, that evidence, together with the fact that, despite having received J.C.L.’s request to delete the computer's contents the day before, Dutton had not yet done so, supports an inference that Dutton was not likely to destroy the contents of the computer.

Further, J.C.L. proposes that Elliott must in fact have trusted Dutton not to destroy the evidence, or he would not have left Dutton alone with his own computer for approximately one hour before returning to seize it, even though it contained a copy of J.C.L.’s hard drive. Finally, J.C.L. contends that a warrant reasonably could have been obtained by telephone with Elliott waiting on the premises.
In re J.C.L., supra. 
The Court of Appeals, though, was not convinced:
Although J.C.L. has described inferences that might be drawn from the evidence in support of a conclusion that there was no exigency, we agree with the state that the record supports the juvenile court's conclusion that Elliott reasonably believed Dutton was about to erase J.C.L.’s hard drive and that, if he left J.C.L.’s computer within Dutton's control to obtain a warrant, the destruction of evidence was imminent.

At the time he seized J.C.L.’s computer, Elliott was aware that Dutton had previously helped Conahan delete child pornography from his computer. He was aware that J.C.L. had instructed Dutton to delete everything on his computer, including back-up files. He saw that J.C.L.’s hard drive was hooked up to Dutton's computer and that Dutton had already copied J.C.L.’s hard drive onto his own computer.

Together, that information supported Elliott's decision that it was necessary to seize J.C.L.’s computer to avoid the imminent destruction of evidence on J.C.L.’s computer, and that leaving the computer within Dutton's control for any length of time to obtain a warrant would have resulted in a loss of the evidence.

For that reason, we conclude the juvenile court did not err by concluding that the warrantless seizure of J.C.L.’s computer and hard drive was justified by the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.
In re J.C.L., supra. Therefore, for this and other reasons, the Court of Appeals affirmed the juvenile court judge’s ruling.  In re J.C.L., supra. 

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