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Consent by defendant’s wife to the full search of defendant’s computer results in a valid

In U.S. v Watkins, the defendant appealed the court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment obtained by the government as a result of a warrantless search of his computers and its denial of his motion for reconsideration and to reopen the evidentiary hearing. On October 24, 2009, three days after a girl body was found in a Georgia landfill, and detectives visited Watkins for permission to search his computer; he agreed. Later that day, Watkins agree to meet with a detective from the Clay County Sheriff’s office where Watkins expressed a willingness to help in any way he could about the disappearance of the girl. As the interview progressed, Watkins stated that he had used LimeWire to download and view child pornography approximately one hundred times. The detectives assured Watkins that he was not searching for his child pornography but only for clues to the girl’s murder and stated “I am not worried about your files and all that kind of stuff. I’ve got my own private stuff on my computer, you know what I am saying?” Watkins subsequently read and signed a voluntary consent form authorizing full search of his computers.

The Detective and an evidence technician went to Watkins home to meet Mrs. Watkins, explained that Watkins had signed a form consenting to a search of the computers in the home and asked for her consent to search the computers as well. She agreed, although she later claimed that she did so with the understanding that the search was limited to the murder investigation and the website the children had visited. The consent form signed by Mrs. Watkins was identical to the one Watkins had signed at the Sheriff’s office. Watkins who was present did not register any objection or reservation while officers sought and obtained Mrs. Watkins’s consent to an unlimited search of the computers. After the forensic analysis found evidence of child pornography, the evidence was used to charge Watkins with receipt of child pornography by computer over the internet. Watkins moved to suppress the evidence from the computers. A magistrate judge held a hearing and recommended denial of the motion. It reasoned that the detective’s assurances about the scope of the search had limited Watkins consent to evidence relevant to the murder investigation, but that Mrs. Watkins consent authorized a general search and therefore permitted discovery of the child pornography evidence. The search was valid because, Mrs. Watkins consented to a full search of the computers, and Watkins failed to show that the search violated his rights under Randolph. The district court upheld the magistrate’s recommendation concluding that Watkins had “not actually expressed a refusal to consent to an unlimited search of the computers” as Randolph required; instead, “he consented to the detective’s request for a search that was implicitly limited… to certain of the computers.” He was charged under 18 U.S.C. ยง 2252 for receipt of child pornography over the internet.

The district court and denied Watkin’s motion for reconsideration and for a new evidentiary hearing before the district court. The district court subsequently conducted a bench trial on stipulated facts and found him guilty of the charged offense.
In his appeal, he contended the search was invalid because it was conducted without a warrant and without his consent; he submits that his wife’s consent was not sufficient, as a matter of law, to overcome the limited scope of his own permission. He relies principally on the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Randolph as support for his view.

Here Watkins consented in writing to an unlimited search of the computers, but that consent followed repeated assurances by Detective that officers were interested in the computers only for the ongoing murder investigation. The district court found that the Detective false statements misled Watkins about the purpose and the scope of the proposed search. The district court therefore concluded that the scope of Watkins’s consent was limited to information relevant to the murder case investigation. The parties do not dispute that Mrs. Watkins had the authority to consent to a search of the computers. However, the facts showed that Mrs. Watkins signed a consent form-after having the consent form read to her and after discussing it with the Detective while she sat with her husband at a table in their home. The consent form’s terms clearly set forth the unlimited scope of the search. Mrs. Watkins gave independent consent to a FULL search of the computers.

The record is devoid of any indication that, during the process, Watkins interposed any objection or suggested to his wife at any time that the consent documents were in any way limited by another understanding. His silence and acquiescence did not qualify as the type of objection required by Randolph. To obtain the protections of Randolph, a defendant, while present with his cotenant, must object to the search.
Watkins also requested that the Court of Appeals review the district court’s denial of his motion for reconsideration and to reopen the suppression hearing so the district court could make its own credibility determination about the conflicting testimony of Mrs. Watkins and the detective. The magistrate provided thorough and reasonable support for his conclusions. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Watkins motion.