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State of Florida v. Eric M. Young

Case No. 1D06-5798 (Crt. App., Fla., December 26, 2007)

Pastor Has Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy In Office Computer

Court grants defendant’s motion to suppress both evidence of defendant’s computer usage obtained via a warrantless search of his office computer, as well as subsequent incriminating statements concerning such usage made in his interrogation by law enforcement officials.  The evidence at issue indicated defendant, a pastor, was engaged in viewing child pornography.  The Court held that the government’s search violated defendant’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.

In reaching this result, the Court held that Young had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office computer.  The court rested this determination on the fact that:

(i) the church did not have a computer usage policy, and did not regularly monitor the use of the computer,
(ii) the Pastor was the only regular user of the computer at issue, which, owned by his employer, was located in defendant’s private, locked office, to which only he and a church administrator had a key,
(iii) no one was allowed to enter the pastor’s office or use the pastor’s computer without his consent, and
(iv) the Pastor’s computer was not networked to other computers. 

Notably, the court held that the pastor had such a reasonable expectation of privacy despite the fact that he understood the computer could be accessed by the Church Administrator to perform maintenance work.

The Court further held that law enforcement’s search of the computer was not authorized by either an individual having actual or apparent authority to do so.   Law enforcement officials were authorized to search the Pastor’s computer by a church official, who, in turn, had been authorized to grant such permission by the Pastor’s supervisor.  The Court held that these individuals did not have actual authority to grant such a search, given the absence of a computer usage policy, and the fact that they themselves did not regularly use the machine.  For the same reason – the fact that they did not regularly use or access the computer at issue – the court held they lacked apparent authority to authorize the search.  As such, the Court affirmed the lower’s court decision to suppress the evidence of defendant’s computer usage obtained via the search of his computer.

As evidence from this search was used during the subsequent interrogation of defendant, the Court held that incriminating admissions made by the Pastor during this interrogation were also suppressed under the Fourth Amendment, under the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine.

Pastor Uses Church Computer For Business Purposes In Private Office

Defendant Eric Young was a pastor of a Church in Florida.  To assist in the performance of his duties, he was assigned a private office.  The office had a lock, to which only the Pastor and a Church Administrator, had a key.  The Pastor testified that no one was allowed to enter his office without his permission.  The Church Administrator was allowed to, and did, both enter the office herself for ‘reasonable business purposes’ and permit others, including custodians and visiting pastors, to enter and use the office for such things as the preparation of sermons.

Inside this office was a computer belonging to the Church which the Pastor was allowed to use in the performance of his duties.  The computer was not networked to other computers belonging to the Church.  Nor was it, or the Pastor’s use thereof, subject to a written computer usage policy.

According to the Pastor, no one was permitted to use his office computer without his permission.  However, the evidence further indicated that “the Church Administrator performed maintenance on the computer.”  The Court’s decision does not indicate that one needed a password to access the Pastor’s computer.

Church Officials Give Law Enforcement Consent To Search Pastor’s Computer

The Church Administrator received a call from the church’s internet service provider that spam had been linked to the Church’s internet protocol address.  In response, the Church Administrator ran a ‘spybot’ program on the Pastor’s computer, which revealed web site addresses that indicated the Pastor was viewing child pornography.  As a result, she contacted another church official, who, in turn, contacted the Pastor’s supervisor.  This individual, a Mr. Neal, instructed that church official to contact law enforcement, and grant them access to the Pastor’s computer.  Importantly, neither official had an office in the Pastor’s church, nor used his office computer. 

Law enforcement officials subsequently conducted a warrantless search of the Pastor’s computer, and discovered evidence that it had been used to view child pornography.  During a subsequent interrogation of the Pastor, printouts evidencing such computer usage were shown to him, and he made incriminating statements concerning his conduct.

Court Grants Pastor’s Motion To Suppress Evidence Of Computer Usage Obtained During Warrantless Search

The Pastor moved to suppress the evidence obtained by law enforcement during both their search of his office computer, and subsequent interrogation.  Finding the warrantless search violated his Fourth Amendment rights, the Florida district court of appeal affirmed the lower court’s grant of defendant’s motion to suppress.

To prevail on a motion to suppress, the defendant must establish that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the location searched.  This, in turn, requires both that he have an objectively reasonable and subjective expectation of privacy in the area subject to search.  The reasonableness of the defendant’s expectation of privacy depends on the ‘operational realities of the workplace.’  Where a computer is involved, ‘relevant factors include whether the office has a policy regarding the employer’s ability to inspect the computer, whether the computer is networked to other computers, and whether the employer … regularly monitors computer use.’

Where the employer has a clear policy permitting others to monitor the defendant’s computer, he has no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy therein, and a motion to suppress a warrantless search thereof will fail.  Said the Court:

We agree with these courts that where an employer has a clear policy allowing others to monitor a workplace computer, an employee who used the computer has no reasonable expectation of privacy in it. 

Absent such a policy, the court will examine a host of factors, including those discussed above, to determine if the employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place subject to search. 

Notwithstanding a defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy in a place subject to search, a valid search can nonetheless still be conducted either pursuant to a valid search warrant, or with valid consent.  Valid consent, in turn, can either be given by the defendant himself, or by one with ‘common authority’ over the location or item searched.  According to the Court, “common authority is derived from ‘mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes’” 

In the absence of receipt of consent to search from either the defendant himself, or one having common authority over the item searched, law enforcement can still obtain valid consent sufficient to sustain its search from one with apparent authority to consent thereto.  An individual has apparent authority to consent to such a search if a ‘person familiar with the applicable law would have believed the third party had common authority over the premises or item searched.’  In such circumstances, law enforcement’s reliance on such apparent authority is reasonable, and sufficient to sustain the search.

Pastor Has Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy

Applying these principles to the case at bar, the Court held that the Pastor had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office computer, and that law enforcement had not obtained valid consent to conduct a search thereof.

The Court rested its determination that the Pastor had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office computer on the fact that the Church had neither a computer policy that permitted it to search the computer, nor a practice of doing so.  It found further support for its decision in the fact that the Pastor’s computer was not networked, was contained in a private office to which only the Pastor and a third party had a key, which no one was allowed to enter without the Pastor’s permission, and that the computer was used solely by the Pastor, with the exception of the maintenance work performed thereon by the Church Administrator.  Said the Court:

[T]he totality of the circumstances indicates that Young had a subjective expectation of privacy in the office and computer.  He kept the office locked when he was away, thus taking specific measures to ensure his privacy in the office.  When others used the office, the use was for limited purposes.  The testimony at the suppression hearing indicated that Young expected no one to peruse his personal belongings in the office or on the computer. … The facts of the instant case indicated that the church endowed Young with an expectation of privacy far beyond that which an average employee enjoys.  Not only did the church install a special lock on the door, but it supplied only three keys to the door, two of which were in Young’s sole possession.  Additionally, Young had a recognized practice of allowing visitors into his office only with his permission or for limited purposes related to church business. … Young also had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his office computer.  Although the church owned the computer, Young was the sole regular users.  Although the church administrator performed maintenance on the computer, there was no evidence that she or anyone other than Young stored personal files on the computer or used it for any purpose other than maintenance.  Unlike in the federal cases finding no expectation of privacy in a workplace computer, the church in the instant case had no written policy or disclaimer regarding the use of the computer. … Specifically there was no policy informing Young that others at the church could enter his office and view the contents of his computer.  The fact that Young’s computer was not networked to any other computers further heightens the reasonableness of his expectation of privacy in the files.  The only way to access the computer to view its contents was to enter through the locked office door. …

Church Officials Did Not Have Actual Or Apparent Authority To Consent To Law Enforcement’s Search

The Court also held that law enforcement did not obtain valid consent to conduct its search of Young’s office computer.  It was not alleged that Young gave such consent.  The consent law enforcement did obtain – from two church officials – was inadequate, because they lacked common authority over the computer.  Thus, these individuals were not regular users of the computer, and did not have offices in the Church building where it was located.  The court reached this result notwithstanding its conclusion that one of these officials – who was the Pastor’s supervisor – had authority to enter Young’s office.  Said the Court:

Although the district superintendent had personal authority to enter Young’s office, and to authorize others to do so, this authority did not displace the law enforcement officers’ obligation to respect Young’s independent constitutional rights and it did not rise to the level of ‘common authority’ required for valid third party consent.  Neither Moreland nor Neal had ever used Young’s workplace computer, worked in his office, or kept property there.  Instead, the office was kept locked and the church had no specific policy giving church officials the right to control and use the office.  No testimony at the suppression hearing revealed that any church officials had ever exerted such authority over the office.  Thus the State failed to meet its burden to prove that the officials had common authority under constitutional standards …

Finally, the Court held that the church officials did not have apparent authority to consent to law enforcement’s search of the Pastor’s computer.  While the Church officials consented to the search, they did not indicate they had common authority over the subject computer, or that they had either used it, or had control over it.  In the absence of evidence that they had such common authority, the law enforcement could not rely on their consent.  Said the court:

The officer’s actions do not support a finding of apparent authority.  By the officers’ own admissions, they knew nothing of Moreland other than the fact that he was a ‘representative of the church’ who had been told by a supervisor to consent to the search. … they made no effort to ascertain whether the consenting officials had any regular access to or control over the office and the computer.  Therefore, there actions were not reasonable under constitutional standards.

As a result, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, and suppressed the evidence obtained  from a search of the defendant’s computer.  This led to the Court to also suppress the “incriminating statements related to child pornography” given by the Pastor during a subsequent interrogation by law enforcement.  During this interrogation, the Pastor was shown print-outs of his computer usage, obtained during the search of his computer.  As such, held the Court, these statements were the fruit of the improper search, and under the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine, barred by the Fourth Amendment.

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