Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Search Warrant that Led to Child Porn Discovery

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a search warrant application established probable cause for the police to search for and seize the defendant’s computers, which contained child pornography.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Martinez

In March of 2012, a state police sergeant was investigating the distribution and possession of child pornography.  He used a file sharing program called Ares (which had been specifically manufactured for law enforcement departments to monitor and investigate suspected child pornographers) to track down the IP address of a computer that was sharing child pornography.  The sergeant used an online mapping tool to determine the IP address was probably associated with a computer in Massachusetts.  As a result, a district attorney in Western Massachusetts issued a subpoena to Comcast to learn the identity of the person who was assigned to the IP address.  Comcast reported the IP address was assigned to a person who lived in an apartment in Fall River.  The investigation was turned over to the Fall River Police Department, which obtained a warrant to search the apartment for computers and all items that might be related to the possession and distribution of child pornography.  The police executed the warrant in April of 2012 and seized two laptop computers that contained five videos depicting child pornography.  After connecting the defendant to the computers, the police charged him with several crimes including possession of child pornography.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered on his computers.  He argued there was insufficient information in the application for the search warrant to conclude contraband would be found in the apartment.  A district court judge denied the defendant’s motion and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed the warrant application established probable cause to believe contraband would be discovered in the Fall River apartment.  The defendant had pointed out that the police were not able to verify the subscriber identified by Comcast actually lived at the apartment to be searched.  Therefore, according to the defendant, it was possible that a new tenant had moved into the apartment who had nothing to do with child pornography.  The Court said the relevant question was not whether a particular person was living in the apartment, but rather whether evidence of a crime was likely to be located therein.  Because the physical address was connected to the illegal activity, its search was proper.  The defendant also argued the police never determined if a wireless router was assigned to the apartment (which would make it possible for someone other than the Internet subscriber to use a potentially unsecured wireless network).  The Court rejected this argument and said it was not necessary for the police to have identified a specific criminal suspect as long as they were able to establish a nexus between the place to be searched (the apartment), the items to be seized (the computers), and the crime (possession and distribution of child pornography).  In this case, the search warrant application established the appropriate nexus, and the defendant’s motion to suppress was properly denied.

This case provides an important reminder that law enforcement officers have sophisticated tools at their disposal to investigate Internet-related crimes.  Most of what happens on the Internet is not anonymous and there can be serious consequences to participating in criminal conduct online.