Commonwealth v. Shaffer, No. 16 WAP 2018

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE BAER
Citation209 A.3d 957
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Jon Eric SHAFFER, Appellant
Docket NumberNo. 16 WAP 2018
Decision Date18 June 2019

209 A.3d 957

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
v.
Jon Eric SHAFFER, Appellant

No. 16 WAP 2018

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued: December 6, 2018
Decided: June 18, 2019


OPINION

JUSTICE BAER

This is an appeal from the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court's order denying a motion to suppress images of child pornography discovered by a computer repair shop employee after Jon Eric Shaffer ("Appellant") took his laptop to the commercial establishment for repair and consented to the replacement of the laptop's hard drive. The Superior Court held that the trial court did not err in denying suppression because Appellant abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in the computer files under the facts presented. We affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, albeit on different grounds. See Commonwealth v. Wholaver , 644 Pa. 386, 177 A.3d 136, 145 (2018) (holding that this Court may affirm a valid judgment or order for any reason appearing of record).

We hold that because the contraband images were discovered by a computer technician who was not acting as an agent of the government and because the police officer's subsequent viewing of the contraband images did not exceed the scope of the computer technician's search, the private search doctrine applies and Appellant's constitutional privacy protections are not implicated.1

I. Background

The facts of this case, as revealed during the suppression hearing, are as follows. On November 25, 2015, Appellant delivered his laptop computer to CompuGig, a computer repair shop. To obtain repair services, Appellant was required to complete CompuGig's intake form, which queried "What problems are you experiencing?" and listed several alternatives. Commonwealth Exhibit 1. Appellant marked the boxes indicating "Spyware/virus" and "Can't get to Internet." Id. He also provided his computer login password. Id. Additionally, CompuGig's administrative log indicated that Appellant informed

209 A.3d 960

a CompuGig employee that his "son downloaded some things and now there are a lot of pop-ups. Internet has stopped working." Commonwealth Exhibit 2, at 1.

After conducting diagnostic testing, CompuGig technician Justin Eidenmiller believed that Appellant's computer had a failing hard drive. Consistent with CompuGig's policy of contacting the customer for approval if the service charges will exceed $160, an administrative employee called Appellant on December 4, 2015, and Appellant consented to the replacement of the hard drive.2 In an effort to replace the hard drive, Eidenmiller attempted to "take an image of the hard drive and put it on a new hard drive at the customer's request." N.T., 7/7/2016, at 6. While Eidenmiller obtained an image of the hard drive, he was unable to transfer that image successfully to a new hard drive.3 Id.

The next day, after several unsuccessful attempts to transfer files from the hard drive, Eidenmiller continued his efforts to relocate the contents of the hard drive to the new hard drive by manually opening each individual folder and copying the contents. Id. at 7. During this process, Eidenmiller observed thumbnail images, i.e. , small images reflecting the identify of a computer file's contents, revealing what he believed to be sexually explicit photos of children. Id. at 7, 23-24. Notably, Eidenmiller had not been searching for that kind of information and had never been asked by law enforcement to keep watch for evidence of child pornography. Id. at 7, 13. Eidenmiller informed his boss of the images he discovered, and an administrative employee of CompuGig contacted the police. Id. at 7.

Later that afternoon, Officer Christopher Maloney of the Cranberry Township Police Department arrived at CompuGig. The store owners advised Officer Maloney that technicians had found explicit images of young girls on Appellant's laptop and took the officer to the room where Eidenmiller had been working on the computer. Id. at 28. Officer Maloney asked to see the images that Eidenmiller had found. Id. at 28-29. Eidenmiller complied and showed Officer Maloney the child pornography images he had discovered, using the "exact route taken to find the images." Id. at 9, 30.4 Germane to this appeal, after viewing the images that Eidenmiller displayed, Officer Maloney directed Eidenmiller to "shut down the file" and seized the laptop, external hard drive copy, and power cord. Id. at 29.

On December 11, 2015, Detective Matthew Irvin of the Cranberry Township Police Department went to Appellant's home and questioned him. Appellant admitted to having some images on his computer depicting

209 A.3d 961

children as young as eight years old in sexually explicit positions and identified the folders where the digital images were stored. Detective Irvin thereafter obtained a search warrant for the laptop and accompanying hardware on December 15, 2015.5 Id. at 31. While the suppression record does not indicate when the search warrant was executed, there is no evidence suggesting that police conducted an independent search of the files on Appellant's laptop beyond what was observed at CompuGig prior to obtaining the warrant.

On December 18, 2015, Detective Irvin met with Appellant a second time and obtained a written inculpatory statement regarding the illegal images. The following month, on January 21, 2016, a criminal complaint was filed against Appellant charging him with sexual abuse of children (possession of child pornography), 18 Pa.C.S. § 6312(d), for possessing seventy-two digital images, which depicted a child under eighteen years of age engaging in a prohibited sexual act or in the simulation of such act. The complaint also charged Appellant with criminal use of a communication facility (laptop computer), 18 Pa.C.S. § 7512(a), for utilizing the internet to commit, cause or facilitate the commission of the felony of sexual abuse of children.

On May 27, 2016, Appellant filed a pretrial omnibus motion to suppress the contraband images discovered on the hard drive of his laptop computer. Acknowledging that a CompuGig employee had summoned Officer Maloney to the establishment after discovering the illegal images, in his suppression motion, Appellant asserted that an illegal search occurred at the moment Officer Maloney directed the CompuGig employee to open Appellant's computer files and display the suspected contraband images that Eidenmiller had discovered, after which Officer Maloney viewed the images and seized the laptop and the copy of the external hard drive.6 Defendant's Omnibus Pretrial Motion, at ¶ 4, 8. Appellant maintained that Officer Maloney's discovery of the evidence was neither inadvertent nor involved exigent circumstances because the CompuGig employee had informed the officer that the illegal images were on the laptop and that the laptop had been secured in the backroom of the CompuGig facility. Under these circumstances, Appellant submitted, Officer Maloney was required to obtain a warrant before conducting a search of his computer files.

Appellant further contended in his suppression motion that this police conduct constituted a warrantless search of his laptop in violation of his reasonable expectation of privacy, as well as a trespass upon his property in violation of Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Id. at ¶ 8.7 Relevant here, Appellant argued that he did not abandon his expectation of privacy in the files stored on his laptop when he took the computer to CompuGig for repair. He further argued that the incriminating statements he made to police after this illegal search and seizure were the fruit of the unlawful police conduct.

209 A.3d 962

Id. at ¶ 9. Accordingly, Appellant requested that the trial court suppress the physical evidence seized and all the fruits thereof.

In opposing Appellant's suppression motion, the Commonwealth did not specifically invoke the private search doctrine. Instead, the Commonwealth took the position that once Appellant gave his laptop to CompuGig for repairs, he abandoned his expectation of privacy in the computer files stored on the laptop. In support of this position, the Commonwealth relied upon the Superior Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Sodomsky , 939 A.2d 363 (Pa. Super. 2007). As the parties' arguments and the lower courts' decisions revolve around the Sodomsky decision, we shall examine that case.

In Sodomsky , the defendant went to a Circuit City store and requested the installation of an optical drive and DVD burner onto his desktop computer. The defendant was informed that as part of the installation process, the installer would have to make sure that the DVD burner worked. The defendant did not inquire as to how operability of the DVD burner would be determined. After the software was installed, a computer technician performed a general search of the defendant's computer files for a video to test the new DVD drive. During this general search, the technician observed titles of videos which appeared to be pornographic in nature because their titles included masculine first names, ages of either thirteen or fourteen, and sexual acts. The technician clicked on the first video title that appeared questionable,...

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11 practice notes
  • In re Interest of T.W., 22 EAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 20, 2021
    ...defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the suppression record as a whole. Commonwealth v. Shaffer , 653 Pa. 258, 209 A.3d 957, 968-69 (2019) (citations omitted). Where, as here, the issue on appeal relates solely to a suppression ruling, we examine "only the suppressi......
  • Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, No. 17 EAP 2017
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • June 18, 2019
    ...as in Boyd , the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly, 209 A.3d 957 namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider's death. See OISR (......
  • Commonwealth v. Green, 6 MAP 2021
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2021
    ...are supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct." Commonwealth v. Shaffer , 653 Pa. 258, 209 A.3d 957, 968-69 (Pa. 2019). "Our scope of review is to consider only the evidence of the Commonwealth and so much of the evidence for the defense as......
  • Commonwealth v. Maguire, No. 41 MAP 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 22, 2019
    ...that, as appellee before the Superior Court, he was not required to raise this issue until now. Commonwealth v. Shaffer , ––– Pa. ––––, 209 A.3d 957, 970-72 (2019) (citation omitted).Turning to the merits of the issue, I agree with Maguire that the protocol employed by Trooper Beaver in thi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
12 cases
  • In re Interest of T.W., 22 EAP 2020
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 20, 2021
    ...defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the suppression record as a whole. Commonwealth v. Shaffer , 653 Pa. 258, 209 A.3d 957, 968-69 (2019) (citations omitted). Where, as here, the issue on appeal relates solely to a suppression ruling, we examine "only the supp......
  • Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, No. 17 EAP 2017
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • June 18, 2019
    ...as in Boyd , the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly, 209 A.3d 957 namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider's death. See OISR (......
  • Commonwealth v. Green, 6 MAP 2021
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2021
    ...supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct." Commonwealth v. Shaffer , 653 Pa. 258, 209 A.3d 957, 968-69 (Pa. 2019). "Our scope of review is to consider only the evidence of the Commonwealth and so much of the evidence for the defe......
  • Commonwealth v. Maguire, No. 41 MAP 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 22, 2019
    ...that, as appellee before the Superior Court, he was not required to raise this issue until now. Commonwealth v. Shaffer , ––– Pa. ––––, 209 A.3d 957, 970-72 (2019) (citation omitted).Turning to the merits of the issue, I agree with Maguire that the protocol employed by Trooper Beaver in thi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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