case law update

Seventh Circuit: Common Authority Applies to Password Protected Family Computer

A family member lawfully consented to the search of another’s password protected computer, where the computer owner did not attempt to keep computer password private.

On July 31, 2014, police officers in Urbana, Illinois responded to a domestic dispute between Talon Wright and Leslie Hamilton. In their incident report, officers noted that Hamilton called Wright a “pedophile” during the altercation. The next day, Investigator Tim McNaught reviewed the officers’ report and, concerned about Hamilton’s use of the word “pedophile,” called Hamilton and asked to meet with her. Hamilton agreed, and following an initial interview, Hamilton agreed to allow McNaught to search the couple’s apartment and computers for evidence of child pornography.

Hamilton let McNaught into the apartment with her own key and McNaught spotted a desktop computer in the living room, connected to a flat-screen television and no keyboard. Hamilton described the computer as “kind of a family computer,” to which she and the children had regular access. Hamilton also said that, except for her own personal laptop, Wright owned all of the computer equipment in the apartment. McNaught then “previewed” the desktop computer’s hard drive by connecting it to his own laptop, revealing images of child pornography. McNaught then asked Hamilton for permission to seize the computer and she agreed.

In a subsequent interview, Hamilton mentioned a long password for the desktop computer that her children knew, but that she did not. She suggested the password was somehow associated with the computer but she was not sure how. Forensic analysis of the computer did not reveal any sign of password protection.

Wright was arrested and charged with one count of possessing child pornography and two counts of sexually exploiting a minor, based on the evidence found on the desktop computer. The trial court denied Wright’s motion to suppress the evidence recovered on the computer, and Wright appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit following his conviction.

On Wright’s appeal, the Seventh Circuit summarized that consent to a Fourth Amendment search may be obtained either from the defendant or from a third party who exercises common authority over the property to be searched. Common authority, the court explained, does not require existence of an ownership interest in the property, it “rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes.” Essentially, the rule is that “a defendant who permits another person to use his property assumes the risk that that person will allow others to access the property in his absence.”

Wright conceded that Hamilton exercised common authority over the couple’s apartment, but challenged that she had the same authority over the desktop computer found inside. The appellate court agreed the question at issue in Wright’s appeal was whether Hamilton enjoyed mutual use of, access to, and control over the computer itself. On that question, the court wrote, “[i]t’s clear that she did.”

The Seventh Circuit explained that, while the computer belonged to Wright, it functioned as a family computer, which Hamilton and her children freely used. Moreover, Wright left the computer in the apartment, leaving Hamilton with unrestricted access and control over it in his absence. These facts, the court wrote, “easily establish that Hamilton exercised common authority over the computer.”

That Hamilton testified the computer had a password associated with it was immaterial in the matter, the court held. Even though it was ambiguous whether the computer was actually password protected, the evidence indicated that, given that Hamilton’s children knew the password, Wright made no attempt to keep the password from Hamilton, whereas he did take steps to prevent her from accessing his other devices, such as his cell phone.

On these grounds, and finding that Hamilton authority had apparent authority over the desktop computer, the Seventh Circuit held the trial court had properly denied Wright’s motion to suppress.

Read the full case: U.S. v. Wright



This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: expectation of privacy, seventh circuit, james p. garay heelan, common authority


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