Hi-Tech Search for Florida Computer Okayed by Court

Technological enhancements give police officers stronger tools to investigate Florida crimes, track suspects and gather evidence. They also raise new questions about protections against unlawful searches and seizures, as a recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal makes clear.Defendant was charged with a wide variety of Florida criminal offenses, including sexual battery and possession of child pornography, following an investigation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Police officers traced an internet protocol address used to download child pornography to a home in the county. When they searched the home, the officers found that none of the computers in the house that were connected to a home Wi-Fi network had been used to download illicit materials.

They also noticed that the Wi-Fi network wasn’t protected, and could therefore potentially be accessed by others outside of the home. So the cops, with the homeowner’s permission, set up a computer in the home that would allow them to remotely access and monitor the Wi-Fi network. They found the local IP address and a separate MAC address for a computer that was accessing the Wi-Fi network and using it to download pornography. The officers then used a Yagi antenna—a highly directional and shortwave antenna—to determine that the computer was inside Defendant’s motorhome. The officers obtained a warrant to search the home, where they located the computer. Defendant was convicted and sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

Defendant later appealed the conviction, arguing that the evidence obtained from his motorhome should have been kept out of court. He said the officers’ use of the antenna without a warrant violated his right to privacy within his home. The Second District disagreed.

“[Defendant]’s conduct in accessing the unencrypted Wi-Fi signal was not confined within his own home,” the court noted. “Nor were the MAC address signals being distributed from his computer merely to enable [Defendant] to access the Wi-Fi signal for its intended purpose…” Instead, the court said Defendant was stealing his neighbor’s Wi-Fi and using it to download and share child p.

That made the case different from a recent Florida Supreme Court case in which the high court said the cops needed a search warrant or probable cause to track cell phone signals to track a suspect’s location. The person at issue in that case had a legitimate privacy interest in location signals transferred in order to use the phone. Because Defendant in this case didn’t have a similar privacy interest, the court said the cops were permitted to use the antenna to locate his computer without first getting a warrant or establishing probable cause.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer. Clearwater sex crime attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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