Cops Can Search Computers With Explicitly Titled Files, Alabama Court Rules
That's exactly what happened to Corey Beantee Melton, from Alabama, after he took his computer to get repaired at a local Best Buy. When Best Buy's Geek Squad examined the computer's faulty DVD drive, they discovered a virus which appeared to be associated with specific files saved on the man's hard drive. Because the files were explicitly titled, the Best Buy repairmen decided to contact police, on the suspicion that Melton's computer may be loaded with child porn. Law enforcement officials then discovered that Melton did, indeed, have plenty of explicit content on his hard drive, including a video of a prepubescent girl performing oral sex on an adult. Melton was arrested and convicted, and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Melton, however, appealed the decision, on the grounds that the police had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching his computer without due cause. But the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed, claiming that the blatantly explicit titles of Melton's files negated his constitutionally protected expectation of privacy.
"Based on the purpose and goals underlying the statutes criminalizing the possession of child pornography, it is clear that, at the point when officers were looking at the filenames on the computer, any expectation of privacy in files that had names that were highly suggestive of child pornography was not an expectation that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable," Presiding Judge Kelli Wise wrote. The court went on to point out that Melton should've been aware that, when he handed over his computer to Best Buy's technician, he was giving them carte blanche to dig around every nook and cranny of his hard drive.
What's worrisome, however, is the fact that the court has now allowed any technician to alert police whenever they find suspiciously titled files on customer computers. Even if you don't indulge in illegal online activity, then, simply naming your files in suggestive ways could conceivably warrant legal inquisition. And, of course, the ruling raises the question of what exactly constitutes "highly suggestive" file names. The court may have made the right decision by incarcerating Melton, but it may have also inadvertently laid the groundwork for more legal confusion down the road.