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Court finds a warrantless entry into the home did not taint the subsequent consent to the search the home and discovery of child pornography on defendant’s computer

In U.S. v. Smith, the 11th Circuit found no Fourth Amendment search and seizure violation. Smith was charged with receiving and distributing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2) and (b)(1) following the discovery of child pornography on a computer found in his home. Smith moved to suppress the computer contents from admission at his federal criminal trial. He also moved to suppress statements on the grounds the officers conducted a warrantless and uninvited entry into the house and the evidence should be suppressed as the fruit of poisonous tree. After the motion was denied, Smith entered a conditional guilty plea allowing him to appeal.

Here are relevant facts. ICE officers operating on a tip that Smith has child pornography on his computer went to his duplex apartment to speak with him. No one answered after officers knocked and then pounded on the door.

Through windows the officers saw mound of beer cans and a laptop computer in the living room. They smelled a foul odor from Smith’s apartment, which one detective thought was similar to that of a decomposing body. A neighbor told them he had to be home because she saw him the previous evening and his car was in driveway. The neighbor expressed concern that he was not answering the door and asked the officers to check on him and she told one of the officers that Mr. Smith was feeling some sort of depression and was not acting right. The officers determined they should conduct a “welfare check” and enter the home through an unlocked sliding glass door to ensure Smith’s well-being. As they moved through the house they heard a moaning or groaning sound and found him in his bedroom lying on a mattress. After he told them he was okay they told him they were there to speak with him. Smith said he would talk with them outside. The officers left the apartment and met with Smith outside where they asked him questions about child pornography on his computer. When officers asked him if they could look at his computer, he agreed and let them back in the house. The officers found suspicious files on his computers. After some time, he signed a consent form allowing the agents to search his home. He then consented to the police taking items back to the station to examine. They asked and he agreed to return to the station with them for questioning. At the station he was given Miranda warnings. He then confessed to downloading child pornography and making it available for upload via a peer to peer file sharing program.

In his motion to suppress Smith argued, 1) the initial warrantless entry into his house violated the Fourth Amendment, and 2) his confession and the evidence seized from his computers were subject to suppression as the fruit of the poisonous tree. The 11th Circuit did not address the issue of whether the initial entry violated the Fourth Amendment, but found that even if it was an illegal entry, the officers did not exploit the circumstances to obtain evidence used to convict him. His subsequent consent was voluntary and “any potential taint would have been dissipated.”

Assuming for the sake of argument that the initial entry was illegal, the 11th Circuit applied a two-step analysis to evaluate his whether the subsequent consent was valid: First, whether the consent was voluntary, and second whether the consent, even if voluntary, requires exclusion of the evidence found during the search because it was the fruit of the poisonous tree, the product of an illegal entry. Smith admitted his subsequent consent was voluntary so the only question was whether evidence was the fruit of the poisonous tree. The 11th Circuit concluded it was not. The court applied three factors in determining whether the consent was purged of any taint by an unlawful intrusion: the temporal proximity of the illegal act and the subsequent consent, the intervening circumstances the purpose and flagrancy of the officers’ misconduct. The court concluded that even if there was an unlawful intrusion, the totality of the circumstances show the subsequent voluntary consent was not tainted. The officers did not act flagrantly. Once inside the house they proceeded to check on his welfare. They did not search his home for computers nor did they touch anything. Once they say Smith was not in danger, the officers exited the house and remained outside until he let them back in.