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United States v. Stevenson

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 15, 2013

United States of America, Plaintiff- Appellee,
v.
Jeremy Robert Stevenson, Defendant-Appellant.

Submitted: June 12, 2013

Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Davenport

Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

COLLOTON, Circuit Judge.

Jeremy Stevenson entered a conditional guilty plea to two counts of possessing child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B). The district court [1] denied Stevenson's motion to suppress evidence without a hearing, and quashed a subpoena that Stevenson had served on AOL, Inc. Stevenson appeals, and we affirm.

I.

AOL is an Internet service provider. In the course of operating its business, the company identifies certain files that may damage its network with "hash values." A hash value is an algorithmic calculation that yields an alphanumeric value for a file. Among the files to which AOL assigns hash values are those containing child pornography.

AOL scans files sent through its network with a tool that it calls the Image Detection and Filtering Process. When the filtering process detects a hash value that corresponds to a file containing child pornography, it automatically forwards a report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ("National Center").

In September 2010, the filtering process detected that one of AOL's users had e-mailed images depicting child pornography to a Google e-mail account. The filtering process triggered an alert to the National Center, and the National Center passed the tip along to the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation. Investigators learned that both the AOL and Google e-mail accounts belonged to Jeremy Stevenson.

In January 2011, law enforcement officers obtained a warrant to search Stevenson's home. After advising Stevenson of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), the officers questioned Stevenson. Stevenson said that he lived alone and that he used the computers in his house. When asked whether he had any child pornography on his computers, Stevenson responded, "I hope not." A forensic search of Stevenson's computers and thumb drives yielded four videos and 721 images depicting child pornography.

A grand jury charged Stevenson with two counts of possessing child pornography. Stevenson moved to suppress the images discovered by AOL, the images and videos found in the search of his home, and the statements he made to the officers during the search. Stevenson argued that his rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated when AOL scanned his e-mail for child pornography, and that this violation tainted the subsequent search. Stevenson also served AOL with a subpoena demanding various documents that he hoped would support his motion to suppress, and he requested an evidentiary hearing to present whatever documents he would obtain from AOL.

The district court declined to hold a hearing, denied the motion to suppress, and quashed the subpoena. The court explained that AOL was a private actor, so it was not constrained by the Fourth Amendment, and that Stevenson had failed to raise a contested issue of fact that would require an evidentiary hearing. Stevenson entered a conditional guilty plea, preserving his right to appeal the district court's rulings. On appeal from the denial of a motion to suppress, we review the district court's findings of fact for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo. United States v. Anderson, 688 F.3d 339, 343 (8th Cir. 2012).

II.

The Fourth Amendment applies only to state action, so it does not constrain private parties unless they act as agents or instruments of the government. United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984). When a statute or regulation compels a private party to conduct a search, the private party acts as an agent of the government. Skinner v. Ry. Labor Executives' Ass'n, 489 U.S. 602, 614 (1989). Even when a search is not required by law, however, if a statute or regulation so strongly encourages a private party to conduct a ...


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