Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules Police May Seize Memory Cards When Searching for a Suspect’s Electronic Equipment

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled that the police properly seized a defendant’s memory cards when searching for his electronic devices, despite the search warrant’s failure to list the memory cards as items to be seized.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Tarjick

The defendant was convicted of multiple counts of raping his young stepdaughter and his stepdaughter’s friend.  His stepdaughter testified that he began raping her in 2006.  During the course of the sexual abuse, the defendant allegedly used his cell phone to take a sexually explicit photograph of the stepdaughter, and he used a video camera to take a sexually explicit movie.  The stepdaughter told the police that her mother said the defendant was looking at sexually explicit images of young girls on his computer, so the police believed he had transferred the images and movie of his stepdaughter onto his computer.

The State Police obtained a search warrant that permitted troopers to search the defendant’s home.  A search warrant is required, among other things, to specifically list the items that the police wish to seize.  In this case, the warrant listed the family computer, the defendant’s cell phone, and the family’s video camera.  When the police executed the search warrant, they found three memory cards that were in the digital cameras or video cameras.  Although the memory cards were not mentioned in the search warrant, the police seized them.  The police then obtained a second warrant to search the contents of the memory cards.  On the memory cards, the police found images of the defendant posing partially nude with his young son, although no images were found of the defendant’s stepdaughter.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the images found on the memory cards, arguing that the troopers exceeded their authority in seizing the photos since the memory cards were not listed in the search warrant.  The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion and the images on the memory cards were admitted at the defendant’s trial.

Following his conviction, the defendant appealed and asked the Appeals Court to ruled that the trial judge had erred in denying his motion to suppress.  The Appeals Court ruled that the motion to suppress had been properly denied under the plain view doctrine.  The plain view doctrine says that police officers may seize evidence without a warrant if: (1) the police are permitted to be in the location where the evidence was found; (2) the police have a legal right of access to the evidence; and (3) the evidence is clearly contraband (like drugs) or is plausibly related to the crime of which the police are already aware.  The plain view doctrine comes up all the time where police are searching a house pursuant to a search warrant and while inside the house they see other contraband.  In this case, the Appeals Court ruled that the memory cards were plausibly related to the crime that the troopers were already investigating (the presence of naked photographs or videos on cameras or recorders).  Because it was reasonable for the troopers to conclude that the memory cards contained the contraband that was the subject of the search, they were allowed to seize the memory cards.