Fourth Amendment/Private Actor – A company that reports an apparent child pornography offense after finding evidence during an online search is not a government actor if the government does not know of the actor’s searches, the government does not request the searches, and the actor is acting in his own interest.
Mark Ringland was convicted of receipt of child pornography under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2). Google had sent a Cyber Tipline Report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (hereinafter “NCMEC”) containing files of child pornography from Ringland’s email account that were discovered through its hashing technology. Google also discovered two other emails linked to Ringland and sent reports containing files from these accounts as well. NCMEC reviewed some of the files and forwarded all reports to the Nebraska State Police. The police eventually received warrants for Ringland.
Ringland sought to suppress the evidence found from his email accounts but was denied. He appealed, arguing that Google conducted unlawful warrantless searches of his email as a government agent, that NCMEC also conducted unlawful warrantless searches as a government agent by expanding on Google’s searches, and that the good faith exception does not apply.
The Court disagreed, holding that “Google’s search of Ringland’s email accounts constituted a private search.” The Court noted that, although 18 U.S.C. § 2258A(a) requires electronic communication service providers “to report to NCMEC any apparent violation of child pornography laws it discovers,” the providers are not required to seek out and discover violations. Therefore, the providers are not transformed into government agents. The Court held that Google was not a government agent because the government did not know of Google’s initial searches, the government did not request the searches, and Google was acting out of its own interests. The Court further held that Google’s continued searches were private because the government did not have any notice Google would continue to monitor Ringland and the government never requested Google to continue.
The Court also held that the Nebraska police did not expand their search beyond Google’s private search since the police only searched “the same files that Google searched.” The Court held that the police’s search warrant application did not contain any information from NCMEC’s searches.
Appeal from the District of Nebraska
Opinion by Williams (by designation from N.D. Iowa), joined by Colloton and Benton
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