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Allowing Police To Search Your Home: How Far Can They Go?


Criminal Appeals Convictions: Letting Police Search Your Home

U.S v. Turner

U.S Court Of Appeals First Circuit

169.F.3d 84

Decided on February 26, 1999

Allowing Police To Search Your Home: How Far Can They Go?

See Also: Privacy At Work: You May Be Entitled To Less Of It!

Summary: Defendant Turner’s neighbor was involved in an assault. Turner had observed the intruder fleeing from his neighbor’s house and contacted Police. Police arrived and noticed the window screens attached to both Turner and his neighbor’s apartment was ajar, and the sill on Turner’s apartment was smeared with blood. Police were concerned that the intruder may have used his apartment to get into the neighbor’s apartment. They asked permission to search his home, and Turner consented.

     While Turner was downstairs with police, one detective went upstairs to search the house. As he was searching, Turner’s computer monitor screen suddenly turned on revealing a photograph of a nude woman whose hair matched the neighbor’s description. The detective believed Turner was now the suspect in question and furthered his investigation inside the computer. He opened Turner’s personal documents labeled ‘young and young with breasts’ and revealed child pornography. The detective copied the files onto a floppy disk. Turner was subsequently charged with a single count of possessing child pornography in violation of 18.U.S.C. § 2252.

     Defendant moved to suppress the files stating the illegality of the search was a violation under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court found that the police went beyond the scope of the consented search and stated that the evidence of the neighbors assault would not be found in files labeled ‘young, and young with breasts’. The Court Of Appeals affirmed.

Issue: Whether the consent to search a home will include the consent to search the contents of a computer and all the files therein.

Holding: The standard for measuring the scope of a suspect’s consent under the Fourth Amendment is that of ‘objective’ reasonableness; what would the typical reasonable person understand by the exchange between the officer and the suspect when the suspect gave police consent to search his home for purposes of investigating an assault

Facts: Defendant Turner’s Neighbor was assaulted in her apartment. He witnessed the intruder fleeing and called the police. Police arrived and noticed smeared blood on the jointed windowsill of both Turner and the neighbor. Police verbally asked for consent to search Turner’s home with a belief that the intruder may have used his apartment to get into his neighbors, Turner consented and accompanied police in their search.

While downstairs, one detective went upstairs to search. Suddenly, Turner’s computer screen turned on revealing a photograph of a nude woman whose hair matched the neighbors. With Turner now being the suspect in question, the detective furthered his search by opening up personal documents labeled ‘young and young with breasts’. Detective revealed child pornography photographs and he copied the files to a file disk. Subsequently, Defendant was charged with one count of possessing child pornography in violation of 18.U.S.C. § 2252.

Legal Analysis: The scope of a consensual search is generally defined by its expressed object; it cannot exceed the scope of the consent given. Government agents may not obtain consent to search on the representation that they intend to look only for specific items and subsequently use that consent as a license to conduct a general exploratory search. Thus, if the Government agents obtain consent or a warrant to search for a stolen television set, they must limit their activity to that which is necessary for that item; they may not rummage through private documents and personal papers.

Turner moved to suppress the computer files. The district court granted the motion following a suppression hearing, on the ground that it was not objectively reasonable for detective to have concluded that evidence of the assault would be found in files with such labels as “young” or ‘young with breasts.”

The Court Of Appeals held that the police were subjected to search only in places where an intruder hastily might have disposed of any physical evidence of the assault. It was held that it would be impossible to abandon physical evidence of this sort in a personal computer hard drive. The judgment is affirmed.


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