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U.S. v. Charbonneau

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Citation Edit

United States v. Charbonneau, 979 F. Supp. 1177 (S.D. Ohio 1997) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

As part of an FBI task force investigating child pornography on the internet, Agent Rehman would go online via America Online and pose as a pedophile. Rehman would record the activities in various chat rooms and, identified by the user name "Mike1L" receive e-mails of pornographic material sent to participants of the chat rooms.

One of the users sending pornographic pictures was identified through a search warrant as the defendant. Under the auspices of a consent-to-search form signed by defendant's wife the FBI task force searched the defendant's home and recovered two computers and a number of disks containing child pornography.

At the defendant's home the FBI learned that he was away on business and would return to the Columbus airport that day. The agents met defendant at the airport as soon as he got off the plane, accompanied by five of his co-workers, including his supervisor. Defendant was informed that the agents needed to discuss a matter of a sensitive nature and escorted him to the back of the airport to a room used by the airport police. One of his co-workers offered to wait and give him a ride home but the agents sent him home and later drove defendant home themselves.

Defendant was questioned about his activities online but never given his Miranda rights although according to the agents he was told that he was free to leave at any time and that the questioning "could take some time."

Defendant brought motions to suppress the statements made at the airport as well as those made online and to suppress the physical evidence obtained at his residence.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

Statements Made at the Airport Edit

Under the Fifth Amendment, Miranda warnings are required when a suspect is subjected to interrogation while in custody. The test to determine whether a suspect is "in custody" for Fifth Amendment considerations is an objective one; whether a reasonable person in the suspect's situation would have felt that he was under arrest or was "otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way."[1]. The situation must be more than just a "coercive environment"[2].

The Court held that defendant was indeed "in custody" while at the airport and under questioning by the FBI agents. He was confronted by four agents immediately after deboarding and continually questioned without a recitation of his rights.

Whether the defendant was being interrogated while in custody is determined by whether "any words or actions on the part of the [FBI] that" the FBI knew were "reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect."[3]

The Court in this case held that the agents interrogated the defendant. When they conducted the interview they had already confiscated his computer and disks and told him that they knew he was guilty and showed him some of the evidence they had gathered. A reasonable person would have known that such actions would have elicited incriminating responses to their questioning.

Based on the above reasoning the Court granted defendant's motion to suppress his statements made at the airport.

Statements Made Online Edit

Defendant's argument that statements made online are protected under the First Amendment was dismissed as meritless.

Under the Fourth Amendment, a defendant may challenge the validity of a search or seizure based on a finding of a reasonable expectation of privacy. While some courts have found a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mails the expectation is only against certain parties,[4] and the openness of the chat room diminished any expectation the defendant may have had.[5]

Online messages, like any other communication sent to a third party, carries with it the inherent risk that the recipient of the message is either an undercover agent themselves or planning on disclosing the contents to additional parties, including the authorities.[6]

The defendant had no reasonable expectation that any statements or files transmitted willingly to participants in the chat room would remain private and subsequently the court denied his motion to suppress this evidence.

Physical Evidence Seized at Defendant's Residence Edit

The search of defendant's residence was made under the authority of a consent form signed by defendant's wife. Defendant contends that this "consent" was not given voluntarily and was therefore invalid. If the consent was invalid then the search, which was conducted without the execution of a warrant, would be per se unreasonable and the court must grant his motion to suppress.

While the Court agreed that defendant's wife had succumbed to a coercive situation created by the FBI agents and the consent was not voluntary, it held that the search was nonetheless valid under the inevitable discovery doctrine.[7] Defendant's motion to suppress physical evidence recovered from his residence was denied.

References Edit

  1. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. at 477
  2. United States v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. at 495.
  3. Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. at 301.
  4. United States v. Maxwell, 45 M.J. 406, 417 (Armed Forces Ct. App. 1996).
  5. Id.
  6. See United States v. Hoffa, 385 U.S. 293 (1966). for a discussion of the "misplaced trust" doctrine.
  7. See Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 443 (1984).

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