Exposure of files on unsecured wireless no excuse to search, judge rules

Warrantless search of file violated defendant's Fourth Amendment right, federal judge says in child porn case

An individual who inadvertently exposes the contents of his computer over an unsecured wireless network still has a reasonable expectation of privacy against a search of those contents by the police, a federal judge in Oregon ruled last week.

The ruling involves John Henry Ahrndt, a previously convicted sex offender who was sentenced to 120 months in prison for possession of child pornography on his computer.

Ahrndt had argued that some of the evidence that was used against him in court had been gathered illegally. He had filed an appeal asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in Portland to suppress the evidence on the grounds that his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search had been violated.

Oregon District Court Judge Garr King initially denied Ahrndt's motion to suppress but picked up the case again last year after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed King's first ruling.

In a 34-page ruling last week, King granted Ahrndt's renewed motion to suppress the evidence gathered by police from his hard drive and also ordered his subsequent testimony to them to be suppressed as well.

Ahrndt's case goes back to 2007 when one of his neighbors, a woman referred to only as "JH" in court documents, connected to the Internet using her own wireless network. When JH's network temporarily malfunctioned, her computer automatically connected to Ahrndt's unsecured wireless network.

When JH subsequently opened her iTunes software to listen to music, she noticed that another user library called "Dads LimeWire Tunes" from Ahrndt's computer, was also available for sharing, court documents said.

When JH clicked on the folder, she immediately noticed that it contained a lot of files with names suggesting explicit child pornography. She informed the county sheriff's department, which sent a deputy to take a look at her discovery.

JH showed the deputy a playlist of about 25 picture and video files with pornographic titles that she had found on the folder. After consulting with his supervisor, the deputy then asked JH to open one of the files and discovered that it did indeed contain an image depicting child pornography.

Based on that discovery, law enforcement agents obtained a search warrant to search Ahrndt's home. They seized a computer, a wireless router, several hard disks and other storage media from Ahrndt's home. A forensic investigation of the seized equipment turned up about 20 images depicting child pornography.

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