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United States v. Butler

151 F. Supp. 2d 82 (D. Maine, June 25, 2001)

Court denies defendant's motion to suppress both pornographic images obtained from the hard drives of two University computers located in a computer lab that defendant used, and logs pertaining to the usage of such computers.  In so doing, the court rejected  defendant's claim that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in such hard drives, holding that "there is no generic expectation of privacy for shared usage of computers at large."  As defendant did not advance any evidence to support his claimed expectation of privacy, the court denied defendant's motion to suppress.

Defendant was a university student at a college in Maine.  As a result, he had access to computers located in a computer lab on campus.  On one occasion, defendant apparently left a frozen pornographic image on the screen of a computer he was using.  This image was viewed by a University employee, which led, in turn, to an investigation by the University.  That investigation resulted in the discovery of additional pornographic images on the hard drives of two University computers in the computer lab, and to the issuance of a search warrant.

Defendant was subsequently indicted for illegally receiving child pornography.  His motion to suppress these images, as well as the logs showing his usage of the computers, was denied by the court. 

Defendant argued that the search of these computers violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

To assert a right under the Fourth Amendment, a defendant must demonstrate both a subjective expectation of privacy and an expectation that society judges as objectively reasonable.

The court held that defendant had made no showing that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the computers in question.  Importantly, the court held that individuals do not possess a valid generic expectation of privacy in "computers at large"  they shared with others.  Said the Court:

I conclude that in 2001 there is no generic expectation of privacy for shared usage on computers at large.  Conditions of computer use and access still vary tremendously.  The burden remains on the defendant to show that his expectations were reasonable under the circumstances of the particular case.

Defendant was unable to meet that burden in this case.  Said the Court:

As for the hard drives, the defendant has pointed to no computer privacy policies in effect at the University, no statements or representations made to him as a user of the computers in this lab, no practices concerning access to and retention of the contents of hard drives, not even password requirements.  From all that appears, he, along with other students, was simply using the University computers under circumstances where images on the monitor were visible to others (as occurred here), and no commitments were made as to the privacy of hard drives.

The court also rejected defendant's motion to suppress the logs reflecting defendant's computer usage, holding that they were maintained for the benefit of the University, and thus not suppressible.  Lastly, the court rejected defendant's claim that the statute under which he was prosecuted, 18 U.S.C. Section 2252A(a)(2)(A), violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.

The full text of the court's decision can be found on a web site maintained by the United States District Court for the District of Maine.

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