SUPERIOR COURT: SCOTUS “Trespass Doctrine” for 4th Amendment Applies to Computer Search

Filed under: Criminal Law, Sex Crimes by Contributor @ July 5, 2015

In Commonwealth v. Sodomsky, 2015 Pa. Super. 133, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that digital information stored on a desktop computer is subject to Fourth Amendment protections, regardless of the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

The defendant had dropped off his desktop computer to Circuit City’s technology department in order for a new DVD burner and optical drive to be installed onto the system.  While executing the work order, a senior sales assistant checking the success of the installation tested the software by clicking through a generic search.  The generic search generated a list of files populating onto the screen, some of which clearly indicated that its contents contained what appeared to be child pornography.  The assistant clicked on one of the files and child pornography loaded up onto the screen.  He quickly exited out of it, and contacted his manager.  The police were then called.  When the police arrived, the investigating officer asked the Circuit City employee to load up the video file.  When Sodomosky returned to the store, he was told what had happened and said aloud that he knew what they had found and that his “life was over.”  Police then took the computer to the police station and obtained a warrant to further search the computer.

The primary question the three-judge panel had to consider was whether law enforcement interfered with the possessory interest in the defendant’s computer, or engaged in physical intrusion of this computer property to the extent that they committed a trespass for the purposes of obtaining information, thereby violating Sodomsky’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The Fourth Amendment provides “the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”  Warrantless searches are per se unreasonable, unless they fit into an exception.  The Fourth Amendment protects both possessory and liberty interests, even when privacy rights are not implicated.  Specifically, an illegal “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment can occur when a trespass occurs.  Previous applications of this rule by the Supreme Court have applied it to the positioning of a GPS on a suspect’s car and where a drug-sniffing dog sniffed the curtilage of a house without a warrant–regardless of whether the investigation violated a legitimate expectation of privacy.   This property-based analysis is also the same as the Supreme Court applied to cell phones in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, last term.

The panel here found the Riley reasoning convincing that the “quality and quantity of information” on a cell phone is also stored on a desktop computer and such protections as those in Riley naturally extend the desktop computer’s digital data.

The Commonwealth attempted to argue that the “Plain View” exception applied, but, according to the panel, the record did not support a finding that the digital data forming the basis of the charges against the defendant were in plain view to the investigating officer, or that its incriminating nature was immediately apparent.   In fact, the police officer had to direct the Circuit City employee to reopen the file, which was not readily viewable at first glance.  As such, it was a warrantless search and was properly suppressed by the trial court.  The subsequent warrant and files recovered after the search at the police station were “fruits of a poisonous tree” and therefore inadmissible.

To learn how this decision may affect a suppression argument in your case, contact a Fairlie & Lippy attorney today for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *

Or contact me privately:

(215) 997-1000