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Name: People v. Michael E.
Case #: A138712
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 2
Opinion Date: 10/03/2014

Trial court erred in denying motion to suppress because police officer’s warrantless search of defendant’s computer exceeded the scope of a prior private search by a computer technician. Michael E. pled guilty to felony possession of child pornography after his motion to suppress evidence found on his computer was denied. While Michael’s computer was at a computer repair shop, a computer technician, Statham, opened files containing pictures of underage girls posing in a sexually suggestive manner. He called the police, who concluded that the pictures did not qualify as child pornography and asked Statham to search Michael’s computer for other files. Statham discovered video files and, when he was unable to open them, put them on a flash drive for the officer. Another officer was able to open the files and discovered child pornography. The trial court concluded the officer’s search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because he was simply conducting a more thorough search of the hard drive “container” that Statham had already opened. Michael appealed. Held: Reversed. Police exceed the scope of a prior private search when they examine a closed container that was not opened by the private searcher unless police are already “substantially certain” of the container’s contents. (People v. Wilkinson (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 1554, 1571.) Here, the police were not substantially certain of the contents of the video files because the pornographic videos were not identical to the images of the scantily clad juveniles found by Statham and there was nothing about the unopened video files to suggest they were pornographic. Although police may conduct a more thorough search of a container that was opened and examined by a private searcher, Statham never viewed the files that were placed on the flash drive. The trial court erred by assuming that a computer’s entire hard drive, which may contain vast quantities of personal information, is a single “closed contained” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. (See Riley v. California (2014) ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2473.)