Can the Police Search Your Work Computer?

Digital files like images and videos are key pieces of evidence when it comes to the prosecution of child pornography crimes. When defendants are facing these types of charges, investigators will therefore want to search the defendant’s personal computers and other data-storing devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and external hard drives.  But are police officers allowed to search through your computer at work?   

Fourth Amendment Rights and Your Expectation of Privacy

In most situations, police officers need a warrant to conduct a search.  The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution famously guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” adding further that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

A key component of the Fourth Amendment is the individual’s “expectation of privacy.”  Put simply, the expectation of privacy is a legal test which separates reasonable searches from unreasonable searches.  There are two parts to determining a defendant’s expectation of privacy, which stem from a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Katz v. United States:

  • Did the government violate an individual’s subjective expectation of privacy?
  • Was that expectation of privacy reasonable, meaning that society is prepared to recognize the search as reasonable?

This is where matters get complicated, because public places – including office buildings and other types of workplaces – are subject to a diminished expectation of privacy.  As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, objects which “a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.”

On the other hand, in some cases Constitutional protections do apply to objects in public places which the defendant attempted to keep private.  It all depends on the details specific to the case.  A skilled criminal defense lawyer will scrutinize the legality of the search and may be able to demonstrate that your Constitutional rights were violated.

golden scales balancing law and justice

When Don’t Police Need a Warrant to Conduct a Search?

A diminished expectation of privacy is not the only issue which can arise when it comes to police searches of public places.  There are also some specific exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s general protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Defendants should be advised that police generally do not need a warrant in cases where:

  • The suspect consents to be searched.  This type of search is known as a “consent search.”
    • Officers are not obliged to inform you that you can deny consent.  In too many instances, criminal suspects grant their consent because they think they have no choice.
  • Contraband like illegal drugs or weapons are in plain sight.  This is known as the Plain View Doctrine.
    • The similar Plain Smell Doctrine refers to contraband which officers can smell, usually marijuana, leading to drug charges.
  • There is an emergency where either:
    • The evidence is time-sensitive and would deteriorate beyond usability by the time a warrant was obtained.
    • An immediate search is necessary to prevent someone from being injured or killed.

These exceptions also apply to digital evidence, like downloads and chat logs, just as they apply to physical evidence.  (Of course, plain smell would never arise in cases involving digital files.)

If you were arrested for child pornography in New Jersey, you need to act fast.  If you are convicted, you face years in prison, enormous fines, and the creation of a criminal record.  You will also be required to register as a sex offender, which has repercussions of its own.  If you are placed on the Sex Offender Registry, not only do you face an incredibly negative social stigma – you will also be heavily restricted in terms of where you can go, who you can speak to, and what you can possess.

Contact an Atlantic City Criminal Defense Lawyer at The Law Offices of John J. Zarych

When so much is at stake, you need a respected legal team on your side.  The criminal defense attorneys at the Law Offices of John J. Zarych have more than 45 years of combined experience handling complex felony sex crimes in New Jersey, and are prepared to fight aggressively on behalf of our clients. We have achieved favorable outcomes for numerous clients.

To set up a free, completely private legal consultation, call our law offices right away at (609) 616-4956.  We will keep your information confidential.

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