Commonwealth v. Green

Decision Date22 December 2021
Docket NumberNo. 6 MAP 2021,6 MAP 2021
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Eric Lavadius GREEN, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Andrew Chapman Christy, Esq., ACLU of Pennsylvania, Peter E. Kratsa, Esq., West Chester, PA, for Amicus Curiae ACLU of Pennsylvania, et al

James Patrick Davy, Esq., for Amicus Curiae Upturn, Inc.

David Rudovsky, Esq., Philadelphia, PA, Nicole J. Spring, Esq., Matthew Bernard Welickovitch, Esq., Lycoming County Public Defender's Office, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg, & Lin, LLP, for Appellant Eric Lavadius Green

Neil Thomas Devlin, Esq., Ryan Coffman Gardner, Esq., Joseph Charles Ruby, Esq., Lycoming County District Attorney's Office, Kenneth A. Osokow, Esq., Martin Lewis Wade, Esq., for Appellee Commonwealth of Pennsylvania




This appeal originates from an investigation into internet sharing of child pornography. During the investigation, officers obtained a warrant to search for evidence of possession and distribution of child pornography on the electronic devices in the home of Appellant, Eric Green. We granted review in this matter to address whether that search warrant was overbroad.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

On January 14, 2015, the Pennsylvania State Police applied for a search warrant for Appellant's residence. The application included an affidavit of probable cause written by Corporal Christopher Hill (Affiant), who stated that his affidavit was based on information he received from Corporal G. M. Goodyear. Affidavit of Probable Cause at ¶ 2. Affiant explained that Corporal Goodyear conducted undercover investigations into the sharing of child pornography over the internet. Id . at ¶ 20. On December 28, 2014, Corporal Goodyear located a computer that was sharing child pornography on BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file sharing network.1 Id . Corporal Goodyear was able to download files directly from the user of that computer, which included a photograph of a prepubescent girl wearing a sheer dress with her legs spread as to clearly display her genital area. Id . Affiant explained that investigators can ascertain the IP address used by any computer sharing files. Id . at ¶ 19. As a result, Corporal Goodyear obtained the IP address for the computer that shared the image. He then utilized the American Registry of Internet Numbers to learn that the IP address was assigned to the internet service provider Comcast Cable Communications (Comcast).2 Id . at ¶ 21. On January 12, 2015, in response to a court order, Comcast identified Appellant as the subscriber assigned to that IP address and provided his residential address. Id . at ¶ 22. Affiant explained that individuals involved in the sharing and downloading of child pornography usually maintain their collections in the privacy and security of their own home, often without the knowledge of others residing with them. Id . at ¶¶ 23a, 25. The user identified by Corporal Goodyear "had such a collection of child pornography available on a [file-sharing network.]" Id . at ¶¶ 24-25. Therefore, based on Corporal Goodyear's investigation, Affiant stated his belief that a user of a computer connected to the internet at Appellant's address was sharing child pornography on the BitTorrent Network. Id .

Affiant also provided extensive details relevant to the search warrant, such as background information about the investigators, their experience with computer-based crimes, and the technical processes involved in investigating those crimes. Id . at ¶¶ 1-19. Affiant began by describing his own and Corporal Goodyear's qualifications and certifications, including the fact that they both are certified forensic computer examiners. Id . at ¶¶ 3-7. Affiant received training on crimes involving handheld computing devices, basic cell phone investigations, internet investigations, intermediate data recovery and acquisition, and was also specifically trained in BitTorrent investigations. Id . Both Affiant and Corporal Goodyear participated in investigations where computers were used to facilitate crimes, including child pornography cases. Id . at ¶¶ 4-5. Through their experiences they became "familiar with the techniques and methods of operation utilized by individuals involved in criminal activity to conceal their activities from detection by law enforcement." Id .

Based on their qualifications, Affiant stated that he and Corporal Goodyear "know that searching and seizing information from computers often requires investigators to seize all electronic storage devices (along with related peripherals) to be searched later by a qualified computer expert in a laboratory or other controlled environment." Id . at ¶ 7. Affiant explained that this type of seizure, along with a later search, is necessary because:

a. Computer storage devices (like hard drives, diskettes, tapes, laser disks, and CD-ROMs) can store the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pages of information. Additionally, a suspect may try to conceal criminal evidence, and he might store criminal evidence in [a] random order or with deceptive file names or deceptive file extensions. This requires searching authorities to examine all the stored data to determine which particular files are evidence or instrumentalities of crime. This sorting process can take weeks or months, depending on the volume of data stored, and it would be impractical to attempt this kind of data search on site.
b. Searching computer systems for criminal evidence is a highly technical process, requiring expert skill and a properly controlled environment. The vast array of computer hardware and software available requires even computer experts to specialize in some systems and applications, so it is difficult to know before a search which expert is qualified to analyze the system and its data. In any event, data search protocols are exacting scientific procedures designed to protect the integrity of the evidence and to recover even "hidden," erased, compressed, password-protected, or encrypted files. Since computer evidence is extremely vulnerable to inadvertent or intentional modification or destruction (both from external sources and from destructive codes imbedded in the system, such as "booby traps"), a controlled environment is essential to its complete and accurate analysis.

Id . Affiant also explained that it is necessary to seize peripheral devices for "the analyst to be able to properly re-configure the system as it now operates in order to accurately retrieve the evidence contained therein." Id . at ¶ 8.

On January 14, 2015, a magisterial district judge granted the warrant to search Appellant's home based on Corporal Hill's affidavit of probable cause. The warrant identified the items that could be searched for and seized as follows:

Any and all computer hardware, including, but not limited to, any equipment which can collect, analyze, create, display, convert, store, conceal, or transmit electronic, magnetic, optical or similar computer impulses or data. Any computer processing units, internal and peripheral storage devices, (such as fixed disks, eternal hard disks, floppy disk drives, and diskettes, tape drives, tapes, and optical storage devices), peripheral input/output devices (such as keyboards, printers, scanners, plotters, video display monitors, and optical readers), and related communication devices such as modems, cables, and connections, recording equipment, as well as any devices, mechanisms, or parts that can be used to restrict access to computer hardware. These items will be seized and then later searched for evidence relating to the possession and/or distribution of child pornography. This search is also to include any and all cellular phones, including, but not limited to, any cellular device that can collect, analyze, create, convert, store, conceal, transmit electronic data, and the items associated with any cellular device such as power cords, bases, sim cards, and memory cards.

Application for Search Warrant and Authorization at 1-2 (emphasis added).

On January 15, 2015, Corporal Hill and a team of other officials executed the search warrant on Appellant's home. N.T. Trial, 3/6/17, at 61. Those who executed the warrant included members of the mobile forensic lab, which allowed investigators to preview digital evidence on site. Id . During the search, authorities previewed a Samsung Galaxy phone and saw that it contained images of child pornography. Id . Appellant admitted that he was the only person who used that phone and that he used the BitTorrent program on the phone and his computer. Id . at 62-63. The phone was seized and data was later extracted for evidence of child pornography. Id . The forensic search of the phone discovered approximately 100 pornographic photographs of young girls. Id . at 7-9.3 The Commonwealth subsequently charged Appellant with approximately 100 counts of both possession of child pornography and criminal use of a communication facility.

Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to suppress. Relevant to the issue before us, Appellant argued that:

[T]he search warrant in this case [was] overbroad in violation of [ Article I section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution]. Here, the warrant allowed the police to seize and analyze and search any and all electronic equipment which would be used to store information without limitation to account for any non-criminal use of said equipment. That is to say, the warrant allows the police to search any and all files on the electronic devices regardless of whether said files were used for criminal purposes as opposed to non-criminal purposes.

Motion to Suppress at 2-3 (internal quotations omitted). Appellant also argued that the warrant was not supported by probable cause because the IP address could have been utilized by a...

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