Monday, December 10, 2012

Exigent Circumstances Justify Seizure of Laptop

US v. Brown: Brown worked for an ambulance service, from which (according to the IP address) child pornography was being downloaded.  Using work records, investigators concluded that Brown and his partner were always on duty when the files were downloaded.  Officers arrived at the service office to execute a search warrant, but found no computers.  Brown and his partner had been out on a call and, when they returned, investigators asked if they had any laptops.  Brown retrieved one from the ambulance, which one of the officers then took from his hands.  After Brown gave a statement in which he admitted downloading child pornography, officers obtained a warrant to search his laptop.  That search uncovered videos and images of child pornography.  Brown went to trial and was convicted of one count of receipt of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography.  The district court dismissed the possession count as a lesser included offense of the receipt count and sentenced Brown to 144 months in prison.

Brown raised two challenges on appeal, both of which the Fourth Circuit rejected.  First, Brown argued that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress without having an evidentiary hearing to assess whether the initial seizure of the laptop was reasonable.  Brown argued that because the warrant itself only authorized a search of the ambulance service office, it did not cover the seizure of the laptop that occurred outside the building.  The court rejected that argument, holding that there were exigent circumstances that supported the warrantless seizure of the laptop.  Second, Brown argued that the district court should have dismissed the more serious receipt count, rather than the possession count, after trial.  The court concluded that the district court "properly adhered to a long line of authorities directing vacation of the conviction that carries the more lenient penalty."

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