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7th Circuit addresses digital media searches

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Despite being troubled by some aspects of a police officer's search of computers of a man charged with voyeurism - during which the officer discovered child pornography - the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found the search didn't exceed the scope of the original warrant.

In United States of America v. Matthew Eric Mann, No. 08-3041, Matthew Mann appealed the denial of his motion to suppress evidence of child pornography found on computers police searched to find evidence of voyeurism. Women in a locker room discovered a camera Mann had installed while working at the facility as a lifeguard. The police got a warrant to search Mann's computers to find images of women in locker rooms or other private areas. The police took a few computers and related items. 

Two months later, Lafayette Police Detective Paul Huff searched Mann's computers using software that would put the images into a viewable format and also alert police to Known File Filter files, which typically are previously identified child pornography images.

Huff found images from locker rooms and child pornography after searching the two computers. Two months later, he found four KFF alert files of child pornography on the external hard drive, and that many other flagged images were also of child pornography. Huff also found two videos from a high school locker room.

Mann tried to suppress the evidence because the officers exceeded the scope of the warrant. The District Court concluded with limited exceptions the search was within the scope of the warrant. Mann then entered a conditional guilty plea to possession of child pornography and reserved his right to appeal the denial of his challenge to suppress.

Mann wanted the Circuit judges to use United States v. Carey, 172 F.3d 1268 (10th Cir. 1999), to overturn the District Court's decision, but the 7th Circuit found Mann's case was similar to United States v. Wong, 334 F.3d 831 (9th Cir. 2003). Like the officer in Wong, Huff continued to look for voyeuristic images even after he discovered the child pornography.

The Circuit judges also decided the four KFF alert files were outside the scope of the search because Huff should have known once they were flagged, they would be child pornography. However, the other images Huff discovered should have been allowed because images indicating voyeurism could have been hidden anywhere in the computer and not easily recognizable, noted Judge Ilana Rovner.

The 7th Circuit also advised those involved in searches of digital media to exercise caution to ensure warrants describe "with particularity the things to be seized and that searches are narrowly tailored to uncover only those things described."

Although they allowed the images other than the 4 KFF alert files found by Huff to be admitted into evidence, "we emphasize that his failure to stop his search and request a separate warrant for child pornography is troubling," wrote Judge Rovner.

The appellate judges found it problematic that Huff waited two months before searching additional computer equipment but notwithstanding their "distaste for the timeline of the investigation,"  the original warrant authorized Huff's search of the external hard drive for voyeuristic images.

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