Fourth Amendment – Warrantless search of defendant’s email attachments after an automated system sent the emails to law enforcement violated the Fourth Amendment.
An automated system operated by Google determined that four attachments uploaded by Luke Noel Wilson matched known child pornography files. Without viewing the attachments, Google then forwarded the images to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), who sent them sight-unseen to law enforcement. A police officer then viewed the attachments and used them to obtain a warrant to search Wilson’s home.
After his subsequent arrest, Wilson filed a motion to suppress the evidence collected pursuant to that search on the grounds that his email attachments had been reviewed without a warrant. The district court denied this motion, finding that the warrantless search was valid under the private search doctrine. Wilson was thereafter convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography.
Reviewing the denial of the motion de novo, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision and vacated Wilson’s conviction. The government’s actions exceeded the limits of the private search exception because neither Google nor the MCMEC actually viewed the attachments, so the police were the first to do so, and viewing those attachments did give the police new information.
Appeal from the Southern District of California
Opinion by Berzon, joined by Watford and Whaley (by designation from the Eastern District of Washington)
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