Thursday, March 03, 2011

Search warrant affidavit sufficient to establish probable cause in child pornography case despite deficiencies

In United States v. Miknevich, 09-3059 (March 1, 2011), the Third Circuit was asked to determine whether an affidavit prepared by a law enforcement officer in child pornography case supported the district court's finding of probable cause. Defendant was charged with possession of child pornography after police executed a search warrant at his home and seized his computer. He entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to challenge the district court's probable cause determination on appeal. In challenging the sufficiency of the affidavit, the defendant noted the following deficiencies: (1) the affidavit did not indicate that any investigating officer actually downloaded the suspect video file, (2) the affidavit did not indicate that anyone, including any other officers or the magistrate judge, ever actually viewed the suspect file, and (3) the affidavit contained no description of the suspected images or actions in the file.

While the Third Circuit agreed that parts of the affidavit were "imprecise" and "inartfully drafted," it nevertheless found that, even given the infirmities identified, the affidavit still contained information sufficient to support a finding of probable cause. The Court rejected any suggestion that a magistrate judge must review the contents of the actual files or that a search warrant must include copies of the images giving rise to the request for the warrant in order for probable cause to be established. Nor does the investigating officer necessarily need to review the images himself, although this remains, in the Court's view, the best procedure for investigating officers to follow. Instead, the Court found that the title of the computer file at issue, which contained highly graphic references to specific graphic sexual acts involving "6yo" and "7yo" children, coupled with the file's SHA 1 value (i.e., a digital fingerprint identifying the file as one known to contain images of child pornography), provided the magistrate judge with a substantial basis for finding probable cause to issue a search warrant. Accordingly, the Third Circuit affirmed the defendant's conviction and sentence.

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