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Should I ever consent to having my computer searched by the police?

Answer:

No, you should never consent to having your computer searched, even if it's for a limited purpose. As a Jacksonville criminal lawyer, I have seen all to often criminal charges brought for what the police find on someone's computer. The 11th. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the case of USA v. Watkins (July 28,2014) is an example of this. Mr. Watkins agreed to assist law enforcement in a murder investigation after the body of a seven year old girl, with whom Watkins was acquainted, was found in a landfill. Watkins was not a suspect in the murder of the child. The child was friends with Watkin's grandchildren and the children occasionally used the Watkins home computer. The police wanted to search for clues by visiting the websites the children had visited. Watkins agreed, but told the police that he had downloaded some child pornography on the computer. The police assured Watkins that they had no interest in the child porn; they were only interested in evidence relevant to the murder investigation. So Watkins agreed to allow the police to search his computer, but only as it related to the murder investigation.

Watkins was asked to sign a voluntary consent form authorizing a full search of his computer. When the police got to the Watkins home, they also had Watkins's wife sign an identical consent form, although she later testified at a hearing that he understanding was that the search was limited to the murder investigation and the websites the children had visited.

When the police found the child porn on the computer, they charged Mr. Watkins with the receipt of child pornography. Watkins's lawyer moved to suppress the evidence of child pornography because Watkins never consented to a search of his computer for this purpose. After a hearing, a Judge concluded that the search of the computer had exceeded the scope of Mr. Watkins consent. The Judge found that the police had given "false assurances" to Mr. Watkins about the purpose of the search and determined that Mr. Watkins consent to the search was limited to evidence relevant to the murder investigation.

If the decision ended here (as it should have), and the evidence suppressed, it would have been a fair one. After all, it was clear to everyone that Watkins only consented to a search of his computer to help solve the murder of a child. But, incredibly, the Judge concluded that Mrs. Watkins gave her consent to a full search of the computer (even though she testified otherwise). The Judge decided that Mrs. Watkins's testimony at a hearing was less credible than the detective, that her assertions were unclear and inconsistent and that she was interested in the outcome of the case "due to her love for her husband". Interestingly, the Judge does not comment on the police's motivation to charge Watkins with receiving child pornography and their interest in putting him behind bars. As such, the Judge denied Watkins's motion to suppress the evidence. Watkins went to trial, was found guilty and was sentenced to 60 months in prison.

How is it possible for a Judge to decide that one spouse did not consent to the search of the home computer, but that the other spouse did consent, especially when the so-called consenting spouse denied giving her consent on the witness stand? Clearly, the police deceived Watkins when they told him they had no interest in the child pornography on his computer. The court found as much. In fact, the police outright lied to Watkins, arresting and charging him with the receipt of child pornography. How could the police have any credibility with the Judge? And how could the Judge decide that Mrs. Watkins was less credible than either her husband or the police and rule that this search was a valid one?

Lesson Learned:

Mr. Watkins made a grave error when he decided to trust the police and give them consent to search his computer. Mrs. Watkins made the same mistake. As I have written before, never, never, never give the police consent to search of your person, your car, your home or your computer, no matter what the circumstance. This is a terrible and legally ridiculous decision. But when it comes to child pornography, the rule of law goes right out the window. While I would never condone the receipt and viewing of child pornography by anyone, this decision shows that courts will bend over backwards and use the most absurd, nonsensical and tortured logic to find a reason to keep a person locked up for viewing child pornography.

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