Police Alerted When Computer Tech Found Child Pornography

July 9, 2019

Police Alerted When Computer Tech Found Child Pornography

More often than not, technology frustrates everyday users. If it happens to you, you may decide to contact a local repair shop for assistance. So, what happens when a computer tech finds child pornography files on your hard drive? And, subsequently contacts the police?

It could be that you share access to your laptop with other family members. You might not even know that someone has been busy searching and downloading illegal photographs. Of course, it could also be you that has wandered into an area strictly prohibited by law.

If your computer’s not working, you may seek out the services of a local repair person for assistance. In your own mind, it’s reasonable to expect the computer company to protect your privacy. At the very least, you don’t want the outside world to get hold of your financial information.

Meanwhile, the outcome of a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania considers the issue of search and seizure laws as they apply to people who repair computers. If you’re under the impression that the Fourth Amendment stops technicians from turning over questionable files, you may be disappointed.

Child Pornography Charges Subject of Recent Court Decision

The Supreme Court decided the matter of Commonwealth v. Shaffer on June 18, 2019. The defendant appealed the trial court’s decision regarding suppression of pornographic images contained on his computer. 

When John Eric Shaffer couldn’t overcome technical issues with his computer, he brought it to a company named CompuGig for repair. Shaffer described the problems he had, including the fact that he couldn’t access the internet.

CompuGig performed a series of tests and ultimately concluded that the laptop’s hard drive failed. Prior to installing the new hard drive, the computer technician called Shaffer and explained his findings. He received the “go ahead” to replace the equipment.

Meanwhile, the computer repair person experienced difficulties in transferring images. This necessitated manual access to open individual files. As the technician continued with the tasks, he came across what he believed to be sexually explicit photographs of children.

Notably, the individual attempting to repair the computer did not intentionally search to see if Shaffer’s laptop contained pornographic images. Additionally, law enforcement authorities never asked the computer company or its employees to look for them.

Upon finding the pictures of young girls that appeared sexually explicit, the computer technician informed his boss of his discovery. A company representative subsequently contacted the police.

Police Confronted the Computer Owner

After receiving notice of the reported images, the police reviewed them. Additionally, the computer technician demonstrated how he came upon the illicit photographs.

Ultimately, law enforcement authorities confronted Shaffer concerning the pictures. He admitted that his computer contained images with children as young as eight and even identified the folders containing the photographs. Shaffer also provided a written statement, easily viewed as self-incriminating. He admitted possession of seventy-two digital images of children engaged in actual or simulated sexual acts.

When police criminally charged Shaffer, it wasn’t just for possession of child pornography files. The law also prohibits “utilizing the internet to commit, cause or facilitate the commission of the felony of sexual abuse of children.”

Attempts to Suppress Evidence

As the matter continued, Shaffer accused the police of conducting a warrantless search to obtain evidence against him. He claimed a violation of his constitutional rights to privacy. Furthermore, Shaffer said that he only provided his incriminating statement after the police unlawfully conducted their illegal search and seizure.

The Commonwealth disagreed. In the first place, they found it unreasonable for Shaffer to expect a right to privacy when turning over his computer to an outside service. Prior case law supports the acts of a technician who inadvertently finds child pornography and reports it to law enforcement authorities. 

In the past, the courts have determined that the defendant should know there’s a chance the illegal files will be discovered. As in this case, leaving the data on the computer exposed the defendant to the potential of detection.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled against Shaffer’s attempts to suppress evidence regarding the child pornography files. The police came to CompuGig at the request of the store owners. They did not illegally engage in a warrantless search.

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An experienced criminal defense acts to help you in challenging situations. At Mazzoni Karam Petorak & Valvano, we can assist you in determining how to fight your charges. Contact us to discuss your case.

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