EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, January 11, 2008

This Has Been The Reverend Signin Off: Florida Court Finds Reverend Had Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy In His Office Computer

Two years ago, Reverend Eric Michael Young of the Fort Caroline Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Florida was charged with viewing child pornography on his church-owned computer.  These charges came after BellSouth notified the church about a problem with its computers, resulting in the church's administrator unlocking and opening the door to Young's church office and discovering child pornography on his computer.  A church offical then called the police and gave them consent to conduct a warrantless search Young's office, which resulted in them finding child pornography on the computer.  At trial, however, Young's attorneys persuaded the judge to exclude the evidence on the ground that he had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" on his office computer absent any church policies on computer use, rendering the incriminating evidence found on his computer inadmissible pursuant to the Fourth Amendment.  Recently, a Florida appellate court affirmed the trial court's decision.

As law professors contacted in connection with the case have noted, there is a sharp split among courts as to whether employees have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in the contents of their office computers, with the majority of courts finding that no such expectation exists, making the Fourth Amendment inapplicable. See, e.g., United States v. Angevine, 281 F.3d 1130 (10th Cir. 2002) (finding that a university professor didn't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office computer, but noting that the issue should be resolved on a case-by-case basis)  A substantial minority of courts, however, have found that employees have such an expectation of privacy in office computers, particularly where, as in the Young case, employers had no policies warning their employees that office computers were subject to searches and seizures.  See, e.g., Leventhal v. Knapek, 266 F.3d 64, 73 (2nd Cir. 2001) ("Leventhal had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his office computer.").   

I think I fall into the Angevine camp, with Fourth Amendment determinations on office computers being decided on a case-by-case basis, with employer policies being an important, but not a dispositive, part of the analysis.  Of course, I still strongly disagree with a restrictive reading of Fourth Amendment rights when such a reading would interfere with the right to counsel, such as under the recent Marine Corps policy.


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