Court Tells Child Sexual Abuse Investigators That The Private Search Warrant Exception Only Works When There's A Private Search
from the thus-answering-the-question-'when-is-a-search-not-a-search' dept
Private searches that uncover contraband can be handed off to law enforcement without the Fourth Amendment getting too involved. Restrictions apply, of course. For instance, a tech repairing a computer may come across illicit images and give that information to law enforcement, which can use what was observed in the search as the basis for a search warrant.
What law enforcement can’t do is ask private individuals to perform searches for it and then use the results of those searches to perform warrantless searches of their own. A Ninth Circuit Appeals Court case [PDF] points out another thing law enforcement can’t do: assume (or pretend) a private search has already taken place in order to excuse its own Fourth Amendment violation. (h/t Rianna Pfefferkorn)
Automated scanning of email attachments led to a series of events that culminated in an unlawful search. Here’s the court’s description of this case’s origination:
The events giving rise to Luke Wilson’s conviction and this appeal were triggered when Google, as required by federal law, reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) that Wilson had uploaded four images of apparent child pornography to his email account as email attachments. No one at Google had opened or viewed Wilson’s email attachments; its report was based on an automated assessment that the images Wilson uploaded were the same as images other Google employees had earlier viewed and classified as child pornography. Someone at NCMEC then, also without opening or viewing them, sent Wilson’s email attachments to the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), where an officer ultimately viewed the email attachments without a warrant. The officer then applied for warrants to search both Wilson’s email account and Wilson’s home, describing the attachments in detail in the application.
You can see where things went wrong: the warrantless search engaged in by the officer to view images neither of the other parties had actually opened or inspected. Apparently, Fourth Amendment violations are standard practice at the San Diego ICAC.
NCMEC then forwarded the CyberTip to the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (“ICAC”). Agent Thompson, a member of the San Diego ICAC, received the report. He followed San Diego ICAC procedure, which at the time called for inspecting the images without a warrant whether or not a Google employee had reviewed them.
A footnote attached to this paragraph states the new “standard procedure” is to obtain a warrant before opening a CyberTip “when the provider has not viewed the images.” The court notes it is “not clear from the record” that this is standard practice at other ICAC offices, or whether they’ve also been instructed to obtain warrants first from now on. So, more challenges are likely on the way.
The lower court refused to suppress the evidence obtained from Wilson’s email account and home, deciding the private search that had never actually occurred was a private search, salvaging the warrantless search that immediately followed the forwarding of the tip by NMCEC.
The Appeals Court disagrees.
First, the government search exceeded the scope of the antecedent private search because it allowed the government to learn new, critical information that it used first to obtain a warrant and then to prosecute Wilson. Second, the government search also expanded the scope of the antecedent private search because the government agent viewed Wilson’s email attachments even though no Google employee—or other person—had done so, thereby exceeding any earlier privacy intrusion. Moreover, on the limited evidentiary record, the government has not established that what a Google employee previously viewed were exact duplicates of Wilson’s images. And, even if they were duplicates, such viewing of others’ digital communications would not have violated Wilson’s expectation of privacy in his images, as Fourth Amendment rights are personal.
Matching hashes is not enough. And that’s all Google and NMCEC had when they forwarded the tip down the line to law enforcement. Just because both entities retain hashes (NMCEC retains images as well) that matched the hashes of the attachment doesn’t mean there’s no subjective expectation of privacy in one’s own email account. A strong probability that the files were child porn is the perfect basis for a warrant request. Unfortunately, the officer decided to engage in a search without one.
Wilson did not have an expectation of privacy in other individuals’ files, even if their files were identical to his files. The corollary of this principle must also be true: Wilson did have an expectation of privacy in his files, even if others had identical files. If, for example, police officers search someone else’s house and find documents evidencing wrongdoing along with notes indicating that I have identical documents in my house, they cannot, without a warrant or some distinct exception to the warrant requirement, seize my copies. I would retain a personal expectation of privacy in them, and in my connection to them, even if law enforcement had a strong basis for anticipating what my copies would contain. A violation of a third party’s privacy has no bearing on my reasonable expectation of privacy in my own documents. The government does not argue otherwise.
All of the evidence is suppressed, since it all relies on the initial lawless search. The ICAC in San Diego has, belatedly, put a warrant requirement in place. It won’t salvage this conviction, which has been reversed. And it may result in similar suppressions and reversals if the same search-first procedure was used in other child porn cases. But it’s always easier to bypass the warrant and get to the searching. After all, not every court will see the facts the same way, as is evidenced by the lower court’s refusal to suppress the evidence. But it’s now crystal clear in the Ninth Circuit: get a warrant.