Computer Repair Shop Gives Police Your Illegal Files: What Are Your Constitutional Rights?
Most of us rely upon computer repair shops to fix our computer problems. But what happens when a repair technician finds illegal material, such as child pornography, on your computer and calls police? Can police look at the files? Or must they first obtain a search warrant? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently provided an answer that may make you think twice before handing your computer over to a repair technician.
In Commonwealth v. Shaffer, a computer owner brought his laptop to a computer repair shop, called CompuGig, to obtain repair services. At CompuGig, he completed an intake form that asked: “What problems are you experiencing?” The form listed several alternatives, and the owner marked boxes indicating “Spyware/virus” and “Can’t get to Internet.” He also provided his login password and informed CompuGig that he was experiencing pop-ups after his son downloaded some things and that the internet had stopped working.
After conducting diagnostic testing, a CompuGig technician believed that the computer had a failing hard drive. The repair shop contacted the computer owner and obtained his consent to replace the hard drive.
While doing the work, the technician attempted to “take an image of the hard drive and put it on a new hard drive at the customer’s request.” However, after several attempts, the technician was unsuccessful in transferring the files, so he attempted to relocate the contents of the old hard drive to the new hard drive by manually opening each individual folder and copying it.
During this process, the technician observed thumbnail images revealing what he believed to be sexually explicit photos of children. The technician notified his boss, and the repair shop contacted the police.
Later that afternoon, an officer arrived at CompuGig and asked to see the images that the technician had found. The technician showed the officer the photos, using the exact route he previously used to find the images. After viewing the images, the officer instructed the technician to “shut down the file” and seized the laptop, external hard drive copy, and power cord.
A detective subsequently went to the computer owner’s home and questioned him. The computer owner admitted to having some images on his computer depicting children as young as 8-years-old in sexually explicit positions and identified the folders where the digital images were stored. Four days later, the detective obtained a search warrant for the laptop and accompanying hardware. He then met with the computer owner a second time and obtained a written inculpatory statement from him.
The computer owner was charged with possession of child pornography in connection with 72 digital images found on his computer and criminal use of a communications facility (i.e., his laptop).
Suppression of Evidence Denied
The computer owner sought to suppress the evidence, arguing that the police illegally searched his computer when the officer directed the CompuGig technician to open and show him the material he had found and then seized his laptop and the copy of the external hard drive. He further argued that the police conducted 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 the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He also argued that the incriminating statements he made to police after this alleged illegal search and seizure were the fruit of unlawful police conduct and should be suppressed.
The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, reasoning that the computer owner abandoned his expectation of privacy when he requested the repairs on his computer and consented to the replacement of his hard drive. The court also ruled that there was no trespass because the technician was engaged in conduct permitted by the computer owner when he found the illegal files.
The case proceeded to trial, and the computer owner was convicted on both charges and sentenced to six to 12 months of incarceration, followed by 156 months of probation. He appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. He then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Private Search Doctrine
In ruling that the lower courts were correct in refusing to suppress the evidence, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court relied upon what’s known as the “private search doctrine.”
By way of explanation: The Fourth Amendment only protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, as opposed to by private citizens. Under the private search doctrine, which was articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court, if an individual, acting in a private capacity, conducts a search of another’s belongings, the police may replicate that search because the reasonable expectation of privacy has been extinguished. But police may not exceed the scope of the private party’s search.
Pennsylvania also follows the private search doctrine.
In refusing to suppress the evidence in this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that police did not exceed the scope of the computer technician’s search:
[The police officer] testified that [the computer technician] showed him “the exact route taken to find the images,” … and that after viewing the images, [the police officer] directed [the computer technician] to shut down the computer. … The record supports the suppression court’s finding that [the police officer] never expanded upon [the computer technician’s] actions, but merely viewed the images that [the computer technician] presented to him.
The takeaway from this case is clear: If you take your computer to a computer repair shop, you better be certain that there is nothing on it that can get you into legal trouble.