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Court Suppresses Information Revealed When Police Take Computer Out of 'Screensaver Mode'

Via The Volokh Conspiracy, I learned of an interesting Fourth Amendment decision by a federal court in United States v. Musgrove (E.D.Wis. 2011) that looks like a law school exam question. As stated by VC's Orin Kerr, the question before the court was:

When a computer is in screensaver mode, does a police officer's touching a key or moving the mousepad in order to reveal the contents of the screen constitute a Fourth Amendment "search"?

That question is one that could only have arisen after the advent of the personal computer and the screensaver, and the additional facts involving ominous Craiglist posts and incriminating Facebook status updates make the case one that could only have even happened in the much more recent social media era. As summarized in the VC post, police were put on alert after tipsters alerted them to a threat posted on Craigslist regarding possible planned violence at a shopping mall. Police obtained contact information from Craigslist about the person who posted the threat and went to his home, where the man invited the police to come in.

While in the man's home, one officer saw a laptop computer that was either off or in screensaver mode. VC reports that:

The officer touched a key or moved the mousepad, and the computer came out of screensaver mode. The officer could then see the contents of the screen, and those contents revealed the suspect's Facebook wall. The Facebook wall contained a "status update" in which the suspect discussed the mall and wrote that another mall was next, and it also showed that the defendant had "liked" a group about the need to change the mall.

Based on the status update, police arrested the suspect. The defendant later argued that the information found on his computer should be suppressed because the officer's act of removing the computer from screensaver mode to see the man's Facebook page was an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.

The court agreed with the defendant, and suppressed the evidence from the computer. Magistrate Judge Nancy Joseph found that:

[b]y touching a key or moving the mouse, the officer put into view the Facebook wall, which was not previously in view. Though a close call, the Court concludes that this was a search, however minimal, which required further authority, a warrant or consent. The government submits that the officer's manipulation of the computer was for the purpose of seizing the computer, not to conduct a preliminary search. However, intent is not generally relevant in assessing whether a search ensued. ... The Court therefore recommends that the defendant's Facebook wall be suppressed.

Bottom line: If you make threatening posts on Craigslist and are discussing these threats further on your Facebook page which is up on your computer when the police come by, make sure you have a screensaver set up on your computer. Or something like that.

Posted by Bruce Carton on September 27, 2011 at 02:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (17)


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