Thursday, January 11, 2007

Apparent Authority Saves Search of Password-Protected Files

US v. Buckner: Buckner pleaded guilty to multiple wire and mail fraud charges. The evidence of the fraud was discovered by a search of the computer hard drive in Buckner's home, which he shared with his wife. The fraud, stemming from illicit eBay activities, was originally thought to be committed by the wife (the wife's name was on the eBay accounts). She knew nothing about any eBay transactions and admitted that, although the computer was leased in her name, she only used it to play solitaire. When police came to talk to the wife, she volunteered the computer to be searched. That is when Buckner's fraud was uncovered.

Buckner moved to suppress the evidence recovered during the search of the computer's hard drive. He argued that because his files were password protected and his wife could not access them, she could not consent to a search of those files. The Government argued that none of the officers performing the hard drive search knew of the password and there was no need to bypass/defeat it to access the files. The district court denied Buckner's motion and Buckner entered a conditional guilty plea.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Buckner's conviction. The court did hold that the wife lacked actual authority to consent to a search of Buckner's password protected files. However, the court concluded that she had apparent authority, particularly because the computer was leased in the wife's name only and the initial reports of fraud contained her name, not Buckner's.

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