Post details: CA10: Delay in search of computer seized by consent was not unreasonable

06/12/13

Permalink 08:19:51 am, by fourth, 747 words, 488 views   English (US)
Categories: General

CA10: Delay in search of computer seized by consent was not unreasonable

Defendant was accused under the Assimilative Crimes Act of ignoring her infant child to death while her husband was deployed, spending 12-15 hours a day computer gaming, hardly stopping for anything. Her husband consented to a seizure of the computer, and it was finally searched months later. While a delay can be unreasonable, it wasn’t here and she never complained before the search. Her computer history was damning evidence against her. United States v. Christie, 717 F.3d 1156 (10th Cir. 2013):

[More:]

For Rebecca Christie, life must have seemed more virtual than real. She usually awoke around noon, settled in before her computer, and logged on to World of Warcraft for gaming sessions lasting well past midnight. There she assumed a new identity in a fantastical world filled with dragons and demons where players staged heroic adventures with and against other players. All the while back in the real world Ms. Christie ignored the needs of her three-year-old daughter. The neglect didn't prove fatal so long as Ms. Christie's husband was around to provide some care. But nine days after her husband left for an out-of-state deployment, the child was dead from dehydration.

Appealing second-degree murder and child abuse convictions, Ms. Christie raises significant questions about computer searches under the Fourth Amendment and the exclusion of witnesses from trial under the Sixth Amendment. The government's cross-appeal raises important questions, too, touching on the Assimilative Crimes Act and the Fifth Amendment's double jeopardy guarantee. In the end, however, we think the district court handled all these questions well and carefully and we see no grounds on which we might reverse its judgment in this tragic case.

. . .

We do not doubt that an unreasonable delay in obtaining a search warrant can sometimes violate the Fourth Amendment. This much surely flows from the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. What, after all, is "reasonable" about police seizing an individual's property on the ground that it potentially contains relevant evidence and then simply neglecting for months or years to search that property to determine whether it really does hold relevant evidence needed for trial or is totally irrelevant to the investigation and should be returned to its rightful owner? See, e.g., United States v. Burgard, 675 F.3d 1029, 1033 (7th Cir. 2012); United States v. Laist, 702 F.3d 608, 613-14 (11th Cir. 2012); United States v. Martin, 157 F.3d 46, 54 (2d Cir. 1998); United States v. Respress, 9 F.3d 483, 488 (6th Cir. 1993).

In assessing the reasonableness of a delay in seeking a warrant, however, we must take account of "the totality of the circumstances" in each case as it comes to us, United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 8 (1989), wary of the temptation to impose "rigid rules, bright-line tests, and mechanistic inquiries," Florida v. Harris, 133 S. Ct. 1050, 1055 (2013). What reasonably justifies a brief delay, for example, may not reasonably justify a longer one. Our task in each case is to "balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion." United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 703 (1983).

Looking first to Ms. Christie's side of the ledger, it's hard to see a significant invasion of her Fourth Amendment interests flowing from the government's delay. That's not to say she never had an interest in the computer. Far from it. She was its primary user and she stored a great deal of personal data on the computer. We don't question that is enough to establish some possessory and privacy interest in the computer the Fourth Amendment would recognize and protect. See United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984); United States v. Angevine, 281 F.3d 1130, 1133-34 (10th Cir. 2002).

The difficulty Ms. Christie faces comes from her husband's actions and her own inactions. The fact is Mr. Wulf was at least a co-owner of the computer, he consented to its seizure, and Ms. Christie herself raised no objection to the seizure either at the time or in the following weeks and months. No call to the authorities, no letter, no motion to the court. Put differently, one individual with common and at least apparent authority over the computer freely gave it to authorities and the other individual never objected. In these circumstances, the government was entitled to assume under long-standing Supreme Court teachings that any Fourth Amendment interest in the computer's continued possession had been voluntarily relinquished. See, e.g., United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 171 (1974); United States v. Andrus, 483 F.3d 711, 716-20 (10th Cir. 2007).

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