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6th Circuit Rules Police Search Violates U.S. Constitution

A police officer’s warrantless review of the defendant’s laptop data exceeded the scope of the private search conducted earlier that day, and violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure.

Because defendant-Lichtenberger had failed to register as a sex offender, he was arrested at the home he shared with KH. After his arrest, KH “hacked into Lichtenberger’s personal laptop computer, where she discovered a nu

mber of images of child pornography.” She then contacted the police, and Officer H asked to see what she had found. He reviewed some images on the laptop, and then obtained a warrant for the laptop and its contents. When Lichtenberger moved to suppress the laptop evidence, the government argued that the officer’s review “was valid under the private search doctrine, which permits a government agent to verify the illegality of evidence discovered during a private search.” The district court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress, and the court affirmed, holding that even though KH’s initial private search was legal under Jacobsen, Officer H’s search exceeded the scope of KH’s earlier search. To remain within the scope of KH’s search, H “had to proceed with ‘virtual certainty’ that the ‘inspection of the [laptop] and its contents would not tell [him] anything more than he already had been told’” by KH. However, “not only was there no virtual certainty that [H’s] review was limited to the photographs from [KH’s] earlier search, there was a very real possibility [H] exceeded the scope of [KH’s] search and that he could have discovered something else on Lichtenberger’s laptop that was private, legal, and unrelated to the allegations prompting the search[.]” The “lack of ‘virtual certainty’” was dispositive. The court also noted that “[t]he need to confirm the laptop’s contents on-site was not immediate[,]” and the laptop did not pose any “cognizable, immediate threat . . . .” The court considered the “extensive privacy interests at stake in searches of a laptop,” weighed that against “the government’s interest in conducting the search,” and concluded that the evidence must be suppressed. Affirmed.

Case: United States v. Lichtenberger

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit

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