PA Superior Court: You Should Not Bring Your Computer In For Repair If It Has Child Porn On It 

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Can Computer Repair Technicians Search A Computer For Child Porn? 

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Shaffer. The Court held that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by searching the defendant’s computer for child pornography where the child pornography was initially discovered by computer repair technicians at a local store. The Court relied on the doctrine of abandonment, finding that the defendant abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his computer when he gave store employees permission to repair the computer.

Commonwealth v. Shaffer

In Shaffer, the defendant was convicted of possession of child pornography (18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 6312(d)) and Criminal Use of a Community Facility (18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 7512). The defendant’s troubles arose when he brought his computer to a store called CompuGig for repair. The defendant told the store employees that the computer’s internet had stopped working, the computer was displaying a lot of pop-ups, and that he thought it had spyware or a virus on it. He left it there for repair, and technicians eventually concluded that the hard drive was failing. The technicians obtained permission to replace the hard drive, and the defendant also authorized them to copy the contents of the old hard drive to a new drive if possible. During the course of attempting to copy the old drive, the technicians found child pornography on the computer. The technicians then called the police and showed the police what they had found. The police took possession of the computer, obtained a search warrant, and arrested the defendant.

The defendant moved to suppress the contents of the computer, arguing that the police violated his right to privacy in his computer when they looked at the contents of the computer prior to obtaining the search warrant. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and the defendant was eventually convicted of the charges. The defendant appealed to the Superior Court and asked the Superior Court to review the denial of the motion to suppress.  

The Appeal

The Superior Court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress and found that the police acted lawfully in viewing the material on the computer. The Superior Court relied heavily on its prior decision in Commonwealth v. Sodomsky and found that the defendant effectively abandoned the computer when he brought it to the store and authorized strangers to work on it. The Court noted that the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places, and what a person knowingly exposes to the public loses its Fourth Amendment protection. Accordingly, when the defendant gave the store employees permission to work on his computer and copy files to a new drive, he lost any expectation of privacy that he would have had in the contents of the computer because he exposed them to the public. The Court further rejected the defendant’s argument that the store employees went beyond the scope of the job, finding that he was specifically told that the employees needed to transfer the data. Thus, the Court concluded that abandonment occurs when a person grants a thirty-party access to his computer’s contents. 

The Superior Court applied a very broad version of the abandonment doctrine in this case, finding that the technicians had the right to view all of the files on the computer because the defendant had given them permission to copy the hard drive. However, it is possible that the outcome could differ in a case in which the defendant had expressly limited the portions of a hard drive which the technicians could access. Nonetheless, it is not advisable to bring a computer in for repair if it has evidence of a crime on it. 

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

 Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra P. Mehta, Esq. and Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra P. Mehta, Esq. and Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended thousands of clients at the trial level on appeal. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to anyone who is under investigation or facing criminal charges. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.