United States v. Wilson (9th Cir. September 2021)

The Federal Docket

October 5, 2021

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)

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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