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Search for child pornography on home computer upheld after wife gave valid consent to the search even though the husband later refused to give consent

In USA v. Thomas the Defendant was convicted of knowingly accessing with intent to view child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(B). Prior to his federal court trial he filed a motion to suppress the incriminating images of child pornography that were seized from his desktop computer at his home in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He appealed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress asking the Eleventh circuit court of appeals to overturn the trial court’s decision.

These are the facts of the seizure. A police officer arrived at Thomas’s home in response to a telephone report from Thomas’s wife that there was child pornography on a computer within the home. The officer was greeted by Thomas’s wife who told the officer that she found eight to ten child pornography websites on a computer in their shared home. The wife described what appeared to be minors engaged in sexual conduct with an adult. The wife told the officer that the defendant was home but sleeping and did not give consent to view the computers, but the wife said they both use the computer though Thomas used the computers more often, and the wife gave permission to search all the electronic equipment. Other officers arrived while Thomas still slept and approached the computer screen where they saw in plain view web sites “pictures of young girls that had only their underwear on” though not engaged in any sexual activity. The officers learned from the wife that she had seen nude photos of 4 – 13 year old children in sex poses and being sexually abused but the wife mistakenly closed the web pages before the police arrived. The officer started to conduct a forensic search/scan of the hard drive of the computer and began a forensic search.

As they began the search for images, Thomas awoke, was told what was happening, and objected to the search. The officer stopped the forensic search and seized the electronic media believing he had probable cause to seize the evidence and believing there was a high risk that the evidence could be destroyed or deleted if left behind. The detective later viewed the results of his scan and saw that one of the websites listed in the internet history had an image of child pornography. The detective applied for a search warrant and after a forensic analysis found 860 images of child pornography.
On appeal Thomas argued that the wife did not have authority to consent to the forensic search of the computer and no lawful grounds existed for conducting the forensic scan while he was sleeping. Furthermore, he argued that all the results of the forensic scan and the evidence discovered after the search warrant must be suppressed as the fruit of the poisonous tree.

The court of appeals held that the only issue was whether the wife had actual or apparent authority to consent to ta forensic search of the computer, even though Thomas had taken steps to prevent her from viewing his internet history. The court said she did have the apparent authority because the computer was easily accessible in and unlocked room in the shared residence, she had access and used the computer that morning, and the wife and Thomas shared a password. Therefore there was no Fourth Amendment violation when the officer conducted the forensic scan based on the wife’s consent and the only information relied upon in the search warrant was data collected prior to Thomas’ objection. Additionally the independent source doctrine would save the search based on information they learned without the illegal search there was probable cause to support the warrant.