Wednesday, February 17, 2016

United States v. Beckman

Opinion handed down May 15, 2015
        In 2013, Paul Beckman pled guilty to possession of child pornography after having been previously convicted of the same offense in 2001.[1]  The district court ordered Beckman to pay $9000 in restitution and sentenced him to 120 months in prison and a lifetime of supervised release.[2]  On appeal, Beckman claimed the district court erred in: (1) denying his motion to suppress evidence relating to documents and files found on an external hard drive resulting from an illegal search; (2) denying his motion to suppress evidence in violation of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41; and (3) ordering restitution in the amount of $9000.[3]  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.[4]

I.  Facts and Holding

        Based on his prior conviction in 2001, Beckman was required to file as a registered sex offender.[5]  In August of 2011, two officers visited Beckman’s address in accordance with the routine sex offender verification process to ensure his compliance with his release conditions.[6]  Beckman consented to the officers’ entry, and upon their entry, the officers observed a laptop computer.[7]  Beckman consented to a search of the laptop as the officers wanted to “make sure he was not accessing any content he’s not supposed to be accessing.”[8]  While one officer searched the laptop on the main floor of the residence, a second officer noticed another computer in the upstairs office after Beckman agreed to show the officer around the rest of the home.[9]
        When the second officer came upstairs, he witnessed Beckman underneath the computer area messing with wires and cords connecting the computer to the wall.[10]  One officer then asked if he could search that computer as well, and Beckman consented.[11]  The officer observed two external hard drives underneath the desk and noticed the power cord to one of the devices was unplugged, and the officer believed this cord was the one Beckman was manipulating.[12]  The officer plugged the power cord back in, began searching the computer, including the external hard drives, and discovered file names suggesting the presence of child pornography.[13]
        The officer admitted he did not receive consent to plug in or search the external hard drives and instead assumed the hard drives were a part of the computer.[14]  The officers placed Beckman into investigative detention, and after speaking with his attorney, Beckman signed a consent form allowing the seizure of the computer and external hard drives, pending a search warrant.[15]
        The government obtained a search warrant on August 15, 2011, specifying the search of the property was to be executed on or before August 29, 2011.[16]  The computer material was not analyzed until November 2011, and the external hard drives were not searched until January 24, 2012.[17]  In total, investigators located over 2000 images of child pornography on the external hard drive.[18]  The sergeant in charge of the case claimed no intent to prejudice Beckman by delaying the search and “merely forgot to return the warrant.”[19]  Beckman then filed a motion to suppress numerous pieces of evidence and statements.[20]
        The district court granted the motion to suppress certain statements made by Beckman during the search, but denied his motion to suppress other statements and evidence seized during the search.[21]  Instead of proceeding to trial, Beckman entered a guilty plea and reserved his right to appeal the motion to suppress the order.[22]  Beckman later appealed that order.

II.  Legal Background

        In order to overturn the denial of a motion to suppress, the court must find the district court’s decision “unsupported by the evidence, based on an erroneous view of the law, or the Court is left with a firm conviction that a mistake has been made.”[23]
        In terms of using an expired search warrant, Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states that a “warrant must command the officer to … execute the warrant within a specified time no longer than 14 days” and the “officer executing the warrant must promptly return it.”[24]  In challenging the court’s denial of Beckman’s motion to suppress certain physical evidence under Rule 41, the court may only exclude the evidence outlined in the search warrant “if the defendant is prejudiced or if reckless disregard of proper procedure is evident.”[25] 
        Finally, restitution in child pornography cases is proper only if the defendant’s actions proximately caused the victim’s losses.[26]  The Supreme Court noted in Paroline v. United States that the mere possession of child pornography is capable of rendering the possessor a proximate cause of the victim’s harm.[27]  The relevant factors a court may consider in awarding restitution in child pornography cases include: past criminal defendants and their contributions to the victim’s harm, predictions of future offenders likely to be caught and prosecuted for crimes contributing to the victim’s harm, available and reliable estimates of the number of offenders involved in the process, whether the defendant redistributed or reproduced the pornographic images, whether the defendant was involved in the initial production of the images, the number of images the defendant possessed, and any other facts relevant to the defendant’s causal role in the process.[28]  However, these factors are to serve only as “guideposts” in determining restitution.

III.  Instant Decision

        Beckman claimed it was unreasonable for the officers to rely on his own consent to search his computer in order to justify the search of the external hard drive.[29]  The court reasoned that if the consent was deemed to “reasonably be understood to extend to a particular container,” then the Fourth Amendment does not require more specific and explicit authorization.[30]  The court further reasoned that the deputy’s belief was reasonable in presuming the term “computer” encompassed the additional component parts pertaining to the computer’s operational capabilities.[31]  In addition, the court noted that when a suspect provides “general consent” to search, there must be an act clearly inconsistent with the search, such as an unambiguous statement, in order to “limit” the consent.[32]
The court noted Beckman provided general consent to search the computer, did not object when the officer plugged in the external hard drive and searched the device, and thus the search was reasonable and was conducted in accordance with Beckman’s consent.[33]  Based on precedent, the court reasoned they were not in a position to overturn the lower court’s credibility determination.[34]  The court concluded exclusion of the evidence obtained was not a proper remedy, as Beckman was unable to show prejudice or reckless disregard in the officer’s conduct.[35]  In terms of the search warrant, the court failed to find reckless disregard denoting improper procedure,[36] and no sufficient prejudice was present to justify exclusion.[37]  Lastly, the court concluded any harm to Beckman’s possessory interest in his property was correctable through means other than suppression of the evidence.[38] 
        In addition, the court considered Beckman’s argument that the $9000 restitution payment order was made in error.  Ultimately, the court concluded restitution was mandatory under the circumstances despite Beckman merely possessing the pornographic material, and the district court rightly found Beckman a proximate cause of the victim’s harm.[39]  The court concluded rather easily that restitution was proper under the circumstances but noted the harder determination to make in child pornography cases is the amount of restitution to award victims.  Relying on Paroline, the court concluded restitution should be ordered in an amount in accordance with the defendant’s definitive role in the process that lead to the child victim’s harm.[40]  Ultimately, the court determined a mathematical formula for calculating restitution in child pornography cases is an impossibility, and instead, the determination should be made based on the available evidence and the defendant’s conduct in contributing to the process that lead to the victim’s harm.[41]

IV.  Comment

        United States v. Beckman exemplifies the Eighth Circuit’s stance on child pornography cases and the implication of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.  The court outlines the general premise that consent to search, unless explicitly prohibited, is granted to search generally throughout the home of individuals suspected of possessing illicit and illegal material. In addition, the court seems more understanding and willing to allow searches conducted regarding child pornography and under circumstances that indicate harm to children may be occurring and will continue to occur.
        Beckman essentially reiterates the Supreme Court’s position on child pornography outlined in United States v. Paroline.  United States courts are largely in favor of awarding restitution to victims in child pornography cases, even if the defendant played no role in the production of the images and only merely possessed the images.  Lastly, the court appears to favor the introduction of evidence in circumstances where the evidence would likely have been found and produced eventually, even when the officer’s seizing of the evidence is questionable and not in direct compliance with the Fourth Amendment. Overall, Beckman stands as a strong indication of the court’s willingness to prosecute child pornography to the fullest extent the law may, or may not, allow.

-        Nick Leslie

[1] United States v. Beckman, 786 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 2015).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. 
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at 675-76.
[9] Id. at 676.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Id. at 677
[22] Id.
[23] United States v. Riley, 684 F.3d 758, 762 (8th Cir. 2012).
[24] Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(e)(2)(A)(i), (f)(1)(D).
[25] United States v. Mutschelknaus, 592 F. 3d 826, 829 (8th Cir. 2010).
[26] Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, 1720-22 (2014).
[27] Id. at 1726.
[28] Id. at 1727-28.
[29] United States v. Beckman, 786 F.3d 672, 678 (8th Cir. 2015).
[30] Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 252 (1991).
[31] United States v. Herndon, 501 F.3d 683, 690 (6th Cit. 2007).
[32] United States v. Lopez-Mendoza, 601 F.3d 861, 867 (8th Cir. 2010).
[33] Beckman, 786 F.3d at 679-80.
[34] United States v. Shafer, 608 F.3d 1056, 1065 (8th Cir. 2010)
[35] Id. at 681.
[36] United States v. Berry, 113 F.3d 121, 123 (8th Cir. 1997).
[37] United States v. Turner, 781 F.3d 374, 387 (8th Cir. 2015).
[38] United States v. Gregoire, 638 F.3d 962, 968 (8th Cir. 2011).
[39] United States v. Beckman, 786 F.3d 672, 683 (8th Cir. 2015).
[40] Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, 1727 (2014).  
[41] Id.