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Appeal: Clicking one link shouldn’t justify a full-home search

by | Feb 4, 2019 | Firm News, Internet Sex Crimes |

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (and the Washington State Constitution) protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled time and again that a person’s home, in particular, deserves heightened protection.

Home searches generally require judicially authorized warrants. Further, judges should only authorize such warrants when they are fully confident that the probable cause standard was met.

To meet this standard for a search, the investigating officer must demonstrate reasonable cause to believe that a crime has been committed at the location, or that evidence of a crime exists there. This belief must be based on evidence, not a hunch.

Requiring judges to verify probable cause before issuing warrants protects all of us. The last thing anyone wants is for police to be allowed to search our homes whenever they are suspicious.

Should clicking on a single link on a website police find suspicious be enough to justify the search of a person’s home?

A Virginia man’s home was searched after he clicked a single URL on a Tor network website known as the Bulletin Board. Police know the Bulletin Board as a resource for obtaining child pornography, but most people wouldn’t.

The link led to a locked download, which the man unlocked using information posted on the Bulletin Board. Most of the links on the Bulletin Board apparently lead to the dark web, where police can’t track users’ actions. The link chosen by this man did not lead to the dark web, and that was the only reason police noticed it.

The police obtained a warrant based on that single click and download. The search, which was for the man’s entire residence, as opposed to just his computer, turned up child pornography. He was charged in federal court of receipt and possession of child pornography and sentenced to five years in prison.

The man appealed, arguing that a residential search should never have been justified by the single click. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has taken up the case.

There appears to be no evidence that the man was a routine Bulletin Board user or even that he knew the site was known for child pornography. Tor network sites are commonly used to download movies and television shows. One of the judges pointed out that pop-up ads or even trolls could steer innocent people to the Bulletin Board. For all the police knew, the man had downloaded an episode of Game of Thrones.

A single click on a suspicious URL should not be sufficient to justify a search of a person’s home. All of our rights depend on warrants requiring more than one suspicious action.