How long can the government hang on to a computer without a warrant? Is a 25-day delay in submitting an application for a search warrant an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment?
David Laist pleaded guilty conditionally to possession and receipt of child pornography, but later appealed the district court's denial of his motion to suppress all evidence retrieved from his personal computer and five external hard drives.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that district court's denial, finding that the totality of the circumstances indicates that the government acted reasonably in obtaining the search warrant.
The FBI Innocent Images National Initiative began investigating the online username "Tar Heel" in 2008 for possession and distribution of child pornography images. The FBI traced that username to a student at the University of Georgia, David Laist.
In 2009, FBI agents visited Laist's apartment for a "knock and talk" to interview "Tar Heel" and to request consent to seize and search the computer associated with that username.
The agents found Laist outside the apartment complex. Laist agreed to speak with the agents in his apartment, confirmed that there was child pornography on the computer and on five external hard drives. He then signed two consent forms authorizing the search and seizure of his computer and hard drives. He provided his username and password, and even accessed the computer to show the agents an image that appeared to be child pornography.
In other words, Laist was every defense attorney's worst nightmare.
After Laist lawyered up, his attorney sent a letter to the FBI revoking his consent. The FBI, in turn, sought a warrant to search the computers and hard drives.
Between staff shortages and loaded dockets, it took 25 days for the FBI to prepare the warrant application, and another 6 days for the judge to approve it. The Bureau later discovered thousands of images and videos depicting child pornography on Laist's computer equipment.
In United States v. Jacobsen, the Supreme Court held that it is "constitutionally reasonable for law enforcement officials to seize 'effects' that cannot support a justifiable expectation of privacy without a warrant, based on probable cause to believe they contain contraband." A temporary, warrantless seizure supported by probable cause is reasonable as long as "the police diligently obtained a warrant in a reasonable period of time."
The Supreme Court instructs lower courts to "balance the privacy-related and law enforcement-related concerns to determine if the intrusion was reasonable." The Eleventh Circuit evaluates the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a delay violates the Fourth Amendment.
Here, the FBI agent who was overseeing the warrant process acted diligently. The agent began drafting the warrant application when he received Laist's letter, and he didn't simply fill the application with boilerplate language. Furthermore, the agent was busy at the time, since he worked in a two-person office responsible for a 10-county area. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the appellate court agreed that the delay didn't constitute an unreasonable seizure.
- U.S. v. David Laist (Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Cotterman v. U.S.: Live-Blogging the Border Search Doctrine Appeal (FindLaw's Ninth Circuit Blog)
- Continuance or Speedy Trial: You Can't Have it Both Ways (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit Blog)