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January 23, 2012

When Kids Hit the Road

The Ohio Supreme Court has, at times, been on the cutting edge of expanding Fourth Amendment protections for digital information from law enforcement intrusion. In December 2009, for example, the Ohio Supreme Court held that even if a cell phone is lawfully seized incident to arrest, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the police from searching the contents of the cell phone without a warrant. But in a recent opinion, State v. Gould, No. 2012-Ohio-71, the Ohio Supreme Court went in another direction.

The case arose in December 2005. The defendant, after losing his job, moved in with his mother.

A few months later, the defendant moved into an apartment he shared with his older brother. The defendant stole his brother’s truck and left the area without taking any of his belongings from the apartment. Many of the defendant’s belongings were sold at a garage sale, but his mother retrieved a hard drive belonging to the defendant and, suspecting it might contain child pornography, turned it over to the police. A forensic analysis of the drive revealed child pornography, including images of the defendant engaging in sexual conduct with a seven-year-old child.

The defendant sought to suppress the evidence on the hard drive on the grounds that it had been illegally searched without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected this argument. The court began its analysis with the idea that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches does not apply to property that has been voluntarily abandoned.  This is because society does not recognize an expectation of privacy in abandoned property as being objectively reasonable.  The court noted that the defendant had left the hard drive in his apartment with his other belongings when he stole his brother’s truck and left the area.  In addition, the defendant never Roadattempted to retrieve the hard drive. 

This case could have significance for lots of old computers.  For example, people  — especially students —  may leave old computers in their parent’s homes for a long period of time. These people may lose the right to object if the police later decide to conduct a search of these machines.

 

 

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