PA Supreme Court: 4th Amendment Does Not Bar Computer Repair Technicians From Showing Police Your Illegal Files

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Shaffer. The Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not prevent computer repair technicians who find child pornography on a computer brought in for repair from showing that illegal material to the police. The Constitution also does not prohibit the police from looking at what the repair technicians found without a search warrant so long as the police do not attempt to view additional files and portions of the hard drive until they have obtained a search warrant. The Supreme Court reaffirmed its prior holdings that the Fourth Amendment only provides protection against governmental action. However, the Court did hold that individuals maintain privacy interests in their computer files even when they are turned over to a private commercial establishment.

Commonwealth v. Shaffer

The defendant brought his laptop computer to a computer repair shop called CompuGig. In order to obtain repair services, the defendant was required to complete CompuGig’s intake form which asked what problems the customer was experiencing. This form listed several options. The defendant marked the boxes indicating “Spyware/virus” and “Can’t get to Internet.” He also provided his login password and told the employee that his son downloaded some things and now there were a lot of pop-ups and that the internet had stopped working.

After conducting a diagnostic testing, one of CompuGig’s technicians believed that the defendant’s computer had a failing hard drive. The technician called the defendant and asked if he would consent to replacing the hard drive. The defendant consented. The technician also took an image of the hard drive so that he could transfer it to the defendant’s new hard drive. However, the technician was having difficulty transferring the files on the defendant’s old hard drive to his new one. The technician began to manually open the files on the hard drive and copy them. While doing this, the technician uncovered what he believed to be sexually explicit photos of children. It is important to note that the technician was not searching for this material and had never been asked by law enforcement to look for evidence of child pornography. After discovering this contraband, the technician notified his boss, and the store called the police.

Later that afternoon, Officer Maloney of the Cranberry Township Police Department arrived at CompuGig. The store owners advised Officer Maloney that the technicians found explicit images of young girls on the defendant’s laptop and took the officer to the room where the technician had been working on the computer. Officer Maloney then asked to see the images that the technician had found. The technician, using the “exact route taken to find the images” which he had used earlier, showed Officer Maloney the pictures. After viewing these images, Officer Maloney directed the technician to “shut down the file,” and he seized the laptop, external hard drive copy, and power cord.

Detective Irvin of the Cranberry Township Police Department went to the defendant’s home and questioned him. The defendant admitted to having some images on his computer depicting children as young as eight years old in sexually explicit positions. He also identified the folders where these images were stored. Detective Irvin met with the defendant again and obtained a written inculpatory statement regarding the pictures on his computer.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with possession of child pornography and criminal use of a communication facility. The defendant then filed a pretrial omnibus motion to suppress the contraband images discovered on the hard drive of his laptop computer.

Can Police Search Your Computer Without A Warrant If The Store Found the Illegal Images First?

In his Motion to Suppress, the defendant argued that the police illegally searched his computer when Officer Maloney directed the technician to open the defendant’s computer files and display the suspected contraband images and then subsequently seized the laptop and the copy of the external hard drive. Further, he argued that the police conduct constituted a warrantless search of his laptop in violation of his reasonable expectation of privacy, as well as a trespass upon his property in violation of both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. He also argued that his statements that he made to the detective were the fruit of the poisonous tree and should also be suppressed.

In response, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant abandoned his expectation of privacy in the computer files stored on the laptop. Notably, the Commonwealth did not argue the private search doctrine. Instead, the Commonwealth focused primarily on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Sodomsky. The facts of Sodomsky were very similar to those in the defendant’s case. In Sodomsky, the Superior Court held that the defendant in that case had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his illegal computer files. The Sodomsky Court held that individuals do maintain a privacy interest in some things that are accessible to the public and thus can be constitutionally protected. Therefore, it is a very fact specific inquiry to determine whether a defendant abandoned his privacy interest. In Sodomsky, the Superior Court held that the defendant abandoned his interest because the computer employees informed him that the operability of his computer would be tested and that he did not inquire as to the manner of testing or restrict the employee’s access to the location of the illicit files. They also emphasized that the defendant did not delete the photos from his computer even though he turned it over to the police.  

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress. The trial court held that the defendant abandoned his expectation of privacy when he requested repairs on his computer related to complaints of a virus and an inability to use the Internet and consented to the replacement of his hard drive. The trial court also rejected the defendant’s trespass argument because the technician was engaged in conduct permitted by the defendant when the files were discovered and thus there was no trespass on the defendant’s effects. The defendant then proceeded by way of a bench trial where he was found guilty. He was sentenced to six to twelve months of incarceration, followed by 156 months of probation. The defendant then filed a timely appeal. 

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. The Superior Court focused primarily on the Sodomsky decision. The defendant filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Court granted his petition for allowance of appeal to determine whether the defendant abandoned his expectation of privacy in in the computer.

What is the Private Search Doctrine?

The Fourth Amendment applies only to the government. Thus, a criminal defendant cannot successfully argue that a private citizen, while acting in a purely private capacity, violated his or her constitutional rights when that person conducted a search and seizure of a defendant’s property. The United States Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment is only implicated “if the authorities use information with respect to which the expectation of privacy has not already been frustrated.” In other words, if a private party searches a defendant’s property, and the government does not exceed the private party’s search, then a defendant cannot claim that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Pennsylvania also follows the Private Search Doctrine as discussed in Commonwealth v. Corley.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. As a preliminary matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that defendants maintain privacy interests in their computer files even when turned over to a private company. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that even though the defendant maintained a privacy interest in the files, because a non-governmental actor discovered them, the Fourth Amendment could not provide relief to him.

The Commonwealth had not not argued the Private Search Doctrine at the motion to suppress, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that it could still apply the doctrine to the defendant’s case. In the defendant’s case, the Court found it of no consequence that Officer Maloney asked the technician to show him the illicit files because the technician had already discovered them. Therefore, the defendant’s privacy interest in them had already been compromised. As such, he was not entitled to relief, and consequently the defendant will not get a new trial.

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Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.