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Trulock v. Freeh, 275 F.3d 391 (4th Cir. 2001) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
Trulock was a former intelligence official who wrote a magazine article alleging that the government ignored a breach of security at a nuclear lab. That same month, FBI agents visited the office of the Trulock's assistant, Linda Conrad, with whom Trulock shared a home, to interrogate her. After the agents obtained Conrad's signature on a consent form, they proceeded to the home and seized a computer shared by Trulock and Conrad. Both individuals used private passwords to access their personal files on the shared computer.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
The court stated that Conrad lacked authority to consent to the search of Trulock's files. Conrad and Trulock both used a computer located in Conrad's bedroom and each had joint access to the hard drive. Despite the fact that both parties had joint access to computer's hard drive, each protected his or her personal files with passwords. In addition, each individual did not have access to the other housemate's passwords. Moreover, by using a password, each housemate affirmatively intended to exclude the other from personal files. Although Conrad had authority to consent to a general search of the computer, her authority did not extend to Trulock's password-protected files. Thus, Trulock had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the password-protected files.
The court held that persons who share a computer cannot provide consent to search password-protected files unless they normally have access to them. Further, persons with joint use of a computer have the authority to consent to a general search of the computer, but that authority does not extend to password-protected files. The Court compared password-protected files to a “locked footlocker inside the bedroom.”