In a recent Ohio case, the Court of Appeals of Ohio held that the search of a computer for evidence related to a rash of eggings that revealed child pornography was properly supported by probable cause (Ohio v. Castagnola, 2013-Ohio-1215 (Ohio Ct. App. 2013). However, a dissenting opinion argued the level of the intrusion made the search improper.
After more than twenty eggings in the small Ohio town of Twinsburg, police had finally found their suspects after viewing several people purchase a large number of eggs from a local grocery store. When confronted, the buyers told the officer that the eggs were for making a cake, but the officer confiscated the eggs anyway. The next day, the group sent the officer a cake.
An informant later showed text messages to the cops sent by one of the egg buyers, Mr. Castagnola, which showed his involvement in the crimes. One of the egging victims, the city's law director, had been hit on the night after he prosecuted Castagnola for the sale of alcohol to minors. Using a wire, the informant engaged Castagnola in conversations discussing the prior eggings. From the conversations, it appeared that Castagnola had used his computer to obtain the law director's home address. A warrant was obtained, and police searched Castagnola's computer for evidence related to the eggings. During the search of the computer, numerous images of child pornography were found, and he was prosecuted and convicted for "pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor."
On appeal, Castagnola argued that the evidence from the computer should be suppressed because there was no probable cause. Specifically, his argument was that:
[the] affidavit failed to establish that probable cause existed for the seizure of his computer. Specifically, he argues that the fact that one form of technology (i.e. a text message) contains evidence of an individual's wrongdoing does not equate to the conclusion that another form of technology (i.e. a computer) will contain similar evidence.However, because the detective's evidence showed that "Castagnola used the internet to locate the law director's personal residence," there was "a causal link between Mr. Castangola's alleged criminal activities" and the computer. He also argued that because he had only said that the address was not listed, and he had to find the address elsewhere, it was not proper for the detective to assume it was obtained online. The court held otherwise.
Castagnola also argued that the evidence was insufficient because the government did not prove that he knew the images existed as "many individuals used the computer." Because the password was really strong, and it seemed that the only ones who knew the password were Castagnola and his mother, the evidence was not insufficient to prove that he had downloaded the images.
A dissenting opinion argued that there was no probable cause for the computer search.
Even if I could agree that there was a "fair probability" that there would be a computer in the home that would verify that he had searched and obtained the law director's address, that single online search was not sufficiently connected to criminal activity to justify this serious intrusion into the privacy rights of the Castagnola family.... Mr. Castagnola's online search for the law director's address was not illegal activity, nor was it a fruit, contraband, or an instrumentality of any crime. It was a piece of "mere evidence" to connect Mr. Castagnola to the crimes committed at the law director's home....
The police had no reason to search the computers for anything other than verification that Mr. Castagnola had found the law director's address. No facts in the affidavit even suggested that any other evidence would be found on the computer to connect Mr. Castagnola to criminal activity.