Law School Case Brief
Commonwealth v. Shaffer - 209 A.3d 957 (Pa. 2019)
In United States v. Jacobson, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a search conducted by private citizens is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Any additional invasion of privacy by the government must be examined by considering the degree to which the government exceeded the private search. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has acknowledged this rule of law in relation to both the federal and state constitutions, recognizing that the proscriptions of the Fourth Amendment and Pa. Const. art. I, § 8 do not apply to searches and seizures conducted by private individuals.
Defendant Jon Eric Shaffer took his laptop computer to a commercial establishment for repair and consented to the replacement of the laptop's hard drive. During the repair, an employee discovered images of child pornography on the hard drive. Local police were notified and the laptop was seized. In the subsequent investigation, Shaffer admitted to having sexually explicit images of children on the laptop, and he also made a written inculpatory statement regarding the illegal images. A criminal complaint was filed against Shaffer. At trial in Pennsylvania common pleas court, Shaffer filed a motion to suppress the images discovered on his laptop alleging that an illegal search occurred and that the police conducted a warrantless search of his laptop in violation of his reasonable expectation of privacy. The court denied the motion. On Shaffer's appeal, the superior court affirmed the order, holding that the trial court did not err in denying suppression because Shaffer abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in the computer files under the facts presented. Shaffer appealed.
Did the private search doctrine apply in Shaffer's case?
The state supreme court affirmed the superior court's judgment, albeit on different grounds. The court ruled that the motion to suppress was properly denied because the contraband images were discovered by a computer technician who was not acting as an agent of the government and because the police officer's subsequent viewing of the contraband images did not exceed the scope of the computer technician's search. Thus, the private search doctrine applied, and Shaffer's privacy protections under both the federal and state constitutions were not implicated.
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