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United States v. Philip Bunnell

Crim No. 02-13-B-S (D. Maine, May 10, 2002)

Magistrate Judge issues report, recommending denial of so much of defendant's motion to suppress which sought to prevent use of various pornographic images found in the recycle bin of a University computer, in a personal computer maintained by defendant at his home, and in a computer used by defendant at his place of employ.  In so holding, the Magistrate Judge determined that defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in either the University or office computers, so that their searches did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  The court further held that the search of defendant's home computer was made pursuant to a validly issued search warrant.

Defendant, an individual, claimed that he conducted research on the Internet in connection with a college course he took on child abuse and incest.  As part of this research, defendant apparently accessed pornographic images of children.  Defendant, with the University's permission, used a University computer to access these materials.  Defendant claimed he neither downloaded nor stored any images on this computer, however.  He claims instead to only have viewed and deleted various images.  Defendant, with his employer's permission, also used a computer at his place of employ to conduct his 'research.'  This machine was used by others.  In addition, defendant used a computer he maintained at his home to conduct his research.

Officials at the University of Maine, as a result of an internal investigation they conducted, informed Maine police officers that they suspected defendant was using University computers to access pornographic materials.  They formed this view, at least in part, by viewing such images in a recycle bin found on a computer defendant had used.  These findings were confirmed in a subsequent inspection performed at the request of the police by U.S. Custom Officials.

The police thereafter obtained a search warrant, permitting their search of defendant's home computer, where they located additional images.

Finally, at a latter point in time, an employee at defendant's place of employ notified law enforcement officials that the company computer defendant had used contained illegal material.  This was a computer defendant shared with others.  With the consent of defendant's employer, the computer was turned over to the police, who discovered pornographic images on it.

As a result, defendant was indicted for the knowing possession of images of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §2252A(a)(5)(B).

Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found in each of these computers, arguing that the searches violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  The Magistrate Judge, in his report, recommended the denial of defendant's motion to suppress.

Defendant claimed that the search of the University's computers, as well as his employer's, violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.  To assert such rights, defendant must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched.  The court held that defendant had no such expectation in the recycle bin of the University computer he used.  Said the Court:

A student has no generic expectation of privacy for shared usage on the university's computers.  . . . Therefore each case is fact specific and the ultimate question becomes whether the claim to privacy from government intrusion is reasonable in light of all the surround circumstances.  The burden is on the defendant to show that his expectations were reasonable under the circumstances of the particular case…. [T]he documents that are the subject [of] this prosecution were not saved by Bunnell in a private folder.  They were deleted onto the university's recycle bin when first viewed by university personnel who alerted law enforcement… [Defendant] has failed to show a reasonable expectation of privacy in these deleted files. (citations omitted).

The court similarly held that defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the office computer in question.  Said the Court:

This is not even a case in which Bunnell had a computer assigned to him by his employer which was his alone to use on a regular basis… Bunnell's usage of his employer's computers is not dissimilar to cases involving computers accessed in a university computer room or a library; Bunnell was borrowing the equipment (for purposes unrelated to his employment) and had to get special permission for his use.  He was aware that other employees used the computer.  His employer came across the suspect material as proprietor of the computer; there is no indication that any special effort was undertaken to track Bunnell's usage.  I conclude that if Bunnell had an expectation that his use of this computer would be private it was not a reasonable expectation within the meaning of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Finally, the court rejected defendant's motion to suppress the evidence found in his home computer, holding it was obtained pursuant to a validly issued search warrant.

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