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Beware of Computer Co-Ownership If It Is Used for a Crime

Kevin Stanley and his girlfriend, Tiana Stockbridge, lived together until the two broke up in 2004.  While they were together, they co-owned a desktop computer, which they each used.  Stanley had a password to his “half” of the computer and his files.  Stockbridge had a similar arrangement for her “half” of the computer.
In 50 Words or Less:  Co-owner of computer can validly consent to search of computer that incriminated the other owner of child pornography charges.
In 2004, Stanley was arrested on state court molestation charges under California Penal Code § 288(a) and Stockbridge took possession of the computer.  Stanley was then convicted and went off to prison.  By giving the computer to Stockbridge, he hoped that he could get his files back when he returned from prison. 

Two years later, the computer crashed and Stockbridge took the computer to her friend, David Trimm, to restore the functioning of the computer.  As Trimm was fixing the computer, he noticed files that suggested child pornography on the unprotected parts of the hard drive.  Trimm then asked Stockbridge for permission to turn over the computer to Stanley’s probation officer (at this point, Stanley must have been released from state prison).  Stockbridge agreed.

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The probation officer then asked Stockbridge for permission to search the computer for illegal material.  Stockbridge again agreed.  A search of the computer did reveal child pornography and Stanley was later charged in federal court with possession of child pornography, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(5)(B). 

Stanley then filed a motion to suppress the child pornography evidence, arguing that Ms. Stockbridge could not consent legally to the search of the computer that exceeded the scope of material her password gave access to. 

In response, the United States district court found that Stanley had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the computer that had been out of his possession for two years, regardless of whether it was previously protected by a password and the earlier arrangement was to hide such material from others.  Stanley further argued that because his cache of child pornography was password protected when he went to prison, he had an expectation of privacy in it that his girlfriend could not waive without his consent.  The district court found this argument unpersuasive as well, noting that the password protection had expired and had not been renewed at the time of the search.

In other words, at the time the computer was searched, Ms. Stockbridge had access to and control over the entire computer.  Therefore, the U.S. district court found, her consent to search the whole computer was valid.

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Stanley then entered a conditional plea to the child pornography charges, conditioned upon his appeal of his motion to suppress, which the U.S. Ninth Circuit in Pasadena considered in People v. Kevin Lloyd Stanley (2011 DJDAR 11597).

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s denial of the suppression motion.  Commenting that Ms. Stockbridge had “common authority” over the computer, which meant Stanley “assumed the risk that the other party might consent to a search.” 

Circuit Judge Robert R. Beezer dissented, noting that the search warrant that the probation officer secured was defective.  Judge Beezer commented that Ms. Stockbridge’s consent to the search cannot make an invalid warrant moot or otherwise legitimize an invalid search warrant.  Beezer was also highly critical of the majority’s finding that because Stanley’s password protection expired, he waived his privacy interest in what was otherwise and earlier protected.  Beezer did not agree that Stanley somehow waived such an interest when he, in prison, did not renew his password when the computer was in Ms. Stockbridge’s possession outside prison.

We understand that child pornography is a terrible thing and that punishing those who possess this should be important, but we disagree as well with the Ninth Circuit’s majority opinion.  If one has a safe deposit box at a bank, which is intended to be private, and that person goes off to prison for many years, no one can access the box except the person in prison, until he or she dies or returns to the bank from prison.  The same treatment should be given to a computer hard drive that is password protected as a bank safe deposit box.

For more information about issues related to the above article, click on the following articles:
  1. Consenting to One Vehicle Search Can Mean Consenting to Multiple Searches
  2. Beware: Living with a Prostitute Can Be Illegal and Land You in Prison
  3. Be Careful Who Your Friends Are – You Can Be Arrested on a Warrantless Search
For case summaries of selected sex offense cases our firm has handled, click here.

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