353 F.3d 606 (8th Cir. 2003), 03-2506, U.S. v. James

Docket Nº:03-2506
Citation:353 F.3d 606
Party Name:U.S. v. James
Case Date:December 23, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Page 606

353 F.3d 606 (8th Cir. 2003)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,


Mar JAMES, also known as James Beine, Appellant.

No. 03-2506EM.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 23, 2003

Submitted: Nov. 18, 2003.

Page 607

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 608

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 609

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 610

Stephen R. Welby of Clayton, MO. James M. Martin and Lawrence J. Fleming, argued, St. Louis, MO (Scott Rosenblum, Stephn R. Welby, on the brief), for appellant.

Carrie Costantin, Asst. U.S. Atty., St. Louis, MO, argued, for appellee.

Before RILEY, RICHARD S. ARNOLD, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

RICHARD S. ARNOLD, Circuit Judge.

This case raises important issues under the Fourth Amendment. In particular, under what circumstances do law-enforcement officers have a reasonable perception that a third person has the authority of the owner to allow officers to inspect the contents of a computer disc entrusted to him by the owner? What are the limits of the inevitable-independent-discovery exception to the warrant requirement? In the particular factual setting presented by this case, we agree with the defendant, Mar James, that his motion to suppress certain evidence should have been granted. We therefore reverse Mr. James's conviction for possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B), and remand this case for further proceedings.


In March 2002, Mr. James was arrested in his home state of Illinois on a St. Louis arrest warrant alleging that he had engaged in several counts of sexual misconduct involving a child, in violation of Missouri state law. He was held in the Madison County Jail awaiting extradition to Missouri.1

While detained, the defendant attempted to smuggle out of the jail a letter to friends, Mike and Carrie Finley. He gave the letter to another inmate, William Longwell, who then gave the letter to his lawyer, Edward Moorman, to mail. Mr. Moorman, however, did not mail the letter. Instead, he read it, and, believing it contained evidence of a crime, got in touch with Assistant Illinois State Attorney Neil Schroeder. After reading the letter, Mr. Shroeder sent it to Edward Postawko, the attorney in St. Louis responsible for prosecuting

Page 611

Mr. James on the Missouri sexual-misconduct charges.

The letter instructed the defendant's friends to:

CALL Michael Laschober 636-296-2296 for him [ASK HIM to forward mail to you] Also tell Michael to destroy and scratch ALL backup CD discs he has (BROWN envelope I just left) these are old and useless and one has a virus tell him to be sure to cut it up too ....

According to trial testimony, Mr. Laschober had known Mr. James since he was eight-years old and that Mr. James, whom Mr. Laschober referred to as Father Jim, had presided over his marriage, at a time when he was a functioning clergyman.

Mr. Postawko, believing that the discs might be of some value to his case, sent two detectives to Mr. Laschober's home in Arnold, Missouri. The detectives read the letter before going to Mr. Laschober's home. Mr. Laschober consented to being questioned about his relationship with Mr. James. He explained that he had seen defendant a couple of weeks before, and that Mr. James had personally delivered some computer discs for storage as back-ups, and picked up his mail. Mr. Laschober explained that Mr. James had his mail delivered to Mr. Laschober, and that Mr. Laschober at least once had opened it and read it. He further explained that Mr. James frequently brought him computer discs to store. Mr. James apparently was concerned that his personal computer would crash or be destroyed, and he wanted to ensure the safety of his back-up discs by storing them offsite.

The detectives asked Mr. Laschober if he still had the discs that Mr. James had most recently brought. Mr. Laschober said that he did and asked if the police would like to see them. He then retrieved the brown envelope, which was addressed to Mar James and sealed with tape. The detectives asked Mr. Laschober if he knew what was on the discs. Mr. Laschober said that he believed the discs contained church and financial records, as the discs that Mr. James had previously dropped off had been so marked.

The detectives asked Mr. Laschober if he knew how many discs were in the envelope. He said no, but he offered to open the envelope and look. He then went to the sink to get a knife. The detectives stopped him, explaining that for their own safety they would rather he not handle a knife. They then asked if it would be all right if they opened the envelope. Mr Laschober said, "sure, go ahead." One of the detectives opened the envelope using his own pocket knife and found ten discs stacked on top of each other and held together with blue tape. The top disc had a note attached which read "CD VIRUS DANGER, CONFIDENTIAL CLASSIFIED, VIRUS RESEARCH PROJECT CONTAMINATED CD--DANGER PERSONAL PRIVATE." The detectives asked Mr. Laschober if they could take the discs with them, and he consented, signing a modified consent form.

After arriving back at the station, the detectives attempted to view the discs, specifically the VIRUS disc. Unable to open the disc's files, the detectives sought the assistance of another officer who had computer expertise. On a more sophisticated computer, the officer was able to open the disc and found digital images of child pornography. Before viewing the discs, and before visiting Mr. Laschober, the detectives never sought and never acquired a warrant to search or to seize the discs.

Mr. James was then charged with possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). Before trial, Mr. James moved to suppress the discs,

Page 612

arguing that the detectives had violated the Fourth Amendment. The issue was heard first by a Magistrate Judge, who recommended on December 5, 2002, that the motion to suppress be denied. As part of that recommendation, the Magistrate Judge specifically advised both parties that they had eleven (11) days to object to the recommendation, and that failure to do so might result in the loss of the right to appeal findings of fact. On March 4, 2003, after a de novo review of the record, the District Court accepted the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge and denied the motion to suppress. On March 14, 2003, after voir dire had taken place, Mr. James filed a writing styled: "Defendant's Objections to Magistrate's Findings of December 5th, 2002 and The Court's Adoption of Same on March 4, 2003 Renewed Motions to Suppress and Statement and Memo in Support of Motion to Suppress." The District Court...

To continue reading