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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

U.S. v. Runyan, 275 F.3d 449 (5th Cir. 2001).

This case answers the following questions: 

  1. Is it unlawful for police to search an entire collection of containers after a private search was limited to selected items of similar closed containers?
  2. Is it unlawful for police to search more items within a particular container after a private search?

The issues in this case are: (1) whether a police search exceeds the scope of a private search when private searchers examine selected items from a collection of similar closed containers and police searchers subsequently examine the entire collection; (2) whether a police search exceeds the scope of the private search when the police examine more items within a particular container than did the private searchers; and (3) whether a police search exceeds the scope of a private search when police searchers identify the subject of a photograph that the private searchers could not identify. Id. at 461. A person’s “expectation of privacy with respect to a container unopened by private searchers is preserved unless the [person’s] expectation of privacy in the contents of the container has already been frustrated because the contents were rendered obvious by the private search.” Id. at 463.

In this case, the defendant was convicted of distribution, receipt, and possession of child pornography after his ex-wife turned over evidence to the police. Id. at 452. The evidence used at trial was obtained by the defendant’s ex-wife and friends searching the defendant’s property while taking her property. Id. In sum, defendant’s ex-wife and her friends removed many disks, zip drives, a computer, and other items from the property that contained images of child pornography. Id. at 453. Some of the disks were viewed by her or her friends. Id. She then turned over some of the disks to the police, and then returned multiple times to the property to obtain more items and provide them to police. Id. Subsequently, police searched the entire collection of materials, including disks not viewed by the defendant’s ex-wife or her friends. Id. Eventually, a warrant was issued for the search of the defendant’s ranch which yielded an additional image of child pornography. Id. at 455. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained by police as a result of pre-warrant searches without a warrant and evidence obtained pursuant to the warrant because the warrant was based on evidence obtained during a pre-warrant search. Id. at 456.

The Court concluded that the “police’s pre-warrant examination of the disks clearly exceeded the scope of the private search [because] the police could not have concluded with substantial certainty that all of the disks contained child pornography based on knowledge obtained from the private searchers, information in plain view, or their own expertise.” Id. at 464. The evidence obtained after police examined disks and zip drives that were found in the same locations as other disks, but not examined by the private searchers was beyond the scope and unlawful. Id. at 464. Furthermore, the Court concluded that if police examine a container and examine more of the same materials than the private searchers, it is not beyond the scope or unlawful. Id. at 465. The evidence obtained by police that came from disks viewed by the private searchers, including any files on those disks that were not viewed by the private searchers, is not beyond the scope or unlawful. Id.

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