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Search & Seizure – Applicability of Exclusionary Rule: Private Government Search – Off-Duty Police Officer Acting in Private Capacity – Viewing Memory Stick Containing Child Pornography

State v. Todd W. Berggren, 2009 WI App 82, PFR filed 6/24/09
For Berggren: Robert G. LeBell

Issue/Holding1Viewing of memory stick, concededly obtained in “private” search not covered by 4th amendment, ¶13 n. 6, by off-duty police lieutenant who was defendant’s brother-in-law, was not a “government search”:

¶14      “Private searches are not subject to the Fourth Amendment’s protections because the Fourth Amendment applies only to government action.” State v. Payano-Roman, 2006 WI 47, ¶17, 290 Wis. 2d 380, 714 N.W.2d 548. …

¶16      Based on the findings of fact adopted by the trial court, when Bolender was given the memory stick, he was off-duty and went to Lisa’s home after receiving a call that she was upset about something having to do with his niece, Brittany. Bolender came into the situation being “on Todd[ Berggren]’s side,” as Berggren was someone he knew and trusted. Bolender “thought that this was probably a situation where something had been blown out of proportion.” He “never thought that the memory stick might contain the kind of pictures he observed” and “[h]e never thought that the pictures would contain evidence of a crime.” Bolender first tried to view the pictures on Lisa’s computer, which was in an open area of the house such that, if the memory stick had worked with Lisa’s computer, everyone present, including Cynthia and other children, would have been able to view the pictures.

¶17      We conclude that the viewing of the photographs by Bolender did not meet the requirements under Payano-Roman for a government search. First, despite the fact that Bolender was a lieutenant for the Oak Creek Police Department, his actions were not instigated by the police. Second, his actions were taken in his capacity as Brittany’s uncle; he acted in the interest of his family when he viewed the photographs that Brittany described as “nasty.” Finally, nothing in the record suggests that Bolender acted “‘for the purpose of assisting governmental efforts.’” See Payano-Roman, 290 Wis. 2d 380, ¶18 (citation omitted).

The result is fact-driven, the court expressly noting that it is “based on our deferential review of the trial court’s factual findings,” ¶18.

Issue/Holding2“(S)ubsequent viewing” of memory stick by the police didn’t exceed the scope of the private search, therefore didn’t violate the 4th amendment:

¶19      Berggren next contends that he had a clear expectation of privacy in the contents of the memory stick. Because we concluded that Bolender was acting in a private capacity and not in an official capacity when he viewed photographs on the memory stick, Berggren’s privacy expectations only become relevant insofar as they relate to the subsequent viewing of the photographs by the Oak Creek police officers. See United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984) (explaining the Fourth Amendment’s protection “as proscribing only governmental action; it is wholly inapplicable ‘to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the Government or with the participation or knowledge of any governmental official’”) (citation omitted).¶20      After an initial invasion of privacy by private action, “additional invasions of … privacy by the government agent must be tested by the degree to which they exceeded the scope of the private search.” Id. at 115. Following the viewing of the photographs through the private actions of Brittany and Bolender, Berggren no longer had an expectation of privacy subject to Fourth Amendment protections. The subsequent viewing by Oak Creek police officers was not an additional search subject to the warrant requirement as it did not exceed the scope of the private searches that preceded it. Seeid. at 117 (“Once frustration of the original expectation of privacy occurs, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit governmental use of the now-nonprivate information.”). As a final matter, we need not address Berggren’s contention that Bolender’s authority to possess the memory stick was distinct from his authority to view its contents, as this argument also only becomes relevant if we had concluded that Bolender was acting in an official capacity. See Walter v. United States, 447 U.S. 649, 654 (1980) (“[I]t has been settled that an officer’s authority to possess a package is distinct from his authority to examine its contents.”); see also Gross v. Hoffman, 227 Wis. 296, 300, 277 N.W. 663 (1938) (unnecessary to decide nondispositive issues).

 

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