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A recent case from Illinois ended with the appellate court deeming that someone could legally consent to a police search of a computer owned by her ex-boyfriend. The case, U.S. v. Wright, showcases just how limited the Fourth Amendment’s protections really are, and how willingly courts take surprising steps to get around it and help the prosecution.
The incident all started when police responded to a domestic dispute between Mr. Talon Wright and Ms. Leslie Hamilton. The two had recently broken up, and during the incident, Hamilton insinuated that her ex-boyfriend had committed a crime. When asked about it afterwards by detectives, Hamilton consented to a search of the apartment that was leased in her name, and from which she was in the process of evicting Wright.
In the apartment’s living room was a desktop computer, owned by Wright. However, everyone living in the apartment, including Hamilton and Hamilton’s three children from another relationship, had been allowed to use the computer and knew the password to it. Detectives, suspecting that the computer had evidence of Wright’s crime, asked Hamilton – not Wright – if they could search it. When she consented to the search, they found evidence of a federal crime and Wright was charged.
When the evidence obtained from the computer search was admitted to court, Wright appealed. However, the appellate court determined that Hamilton had authority to consent to the search and that, therefore, the evidence should be admitted.
Under the Fourth Amendment, searches conducted without a warrant are unconstitutional unless they fall within an exception. One of these exceptions is when police have consent to do the search.
Consent, however, can be given by anyone who has authority over the property to be searched. Of course, who has “authority” over something is a tricky concept. Courts have long since decided that people can still give consent to search something they don’t own. However, the court in Wright greatly expands this ability.
The computer in question was still in Hamilton’s apartment, but she was in the process of evicting Wright from the premises. Additionally, her relationship with him was deteriorating to such an extent that there is little question that any access she had to his computer was no longer welcome. The current status of the relationship between Hamilton and Wright show very clearly that any authority she had over the computer had since run out. The court, however, ignored these developments, and instead focused on the fact that she once had access to the computer, and that this history was enough to let her consent to its search.
The Fourth Amendment is the biggest protection that people living in the U.S. have against an overreaching government and the prying eyes of law enforcement. It protects our privacy and allows us the freedom to run our own lives. However, cases like these are constantly infringing on those abilities, and mark a disturbing trend.
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