Prisoners have rights in the United States—but they still have fewer rights than free people. That lesson was reinforced by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Huart, in which Jeremy Huart’s challenge to a search of his room and cell phone was denied. Huart was living at a halfway house at the time of the search, after a conviction on child pornography charges. The staff member who found his phone found child pornography on the phone, allowing the FBI to get a search warrant for the phone. The phone wasn’t fully searched until after the warrant expired, however, due to problems getting around its password protection. In his new trial, Huart argued that the evidence should be suppressed as illegal. The Wisconsin district court disagreed, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed that ruling.
Huart pleaded guilty to his original child pornography possession charges, leading to a sentence of 65 months in prison. He served prison time from 2008 to 2011, when he was transferred to a halfway house. The rules said that all incoming prisoners’ belongings will be searched and inventoried; new possessions should be reported for addition to the inventory; and prisoners were subject to random searches. Huart was not allowed to have a cell phone. During a random search, a staff member found a phone on Huart’s bed; it contained 214 images, including many of child pornography. It was turned over to the FBI, which got a search warrant saying the search was to be done by Dec. 15, 2011.
Unfortunately, the phone was password-protected, and had to be sent to FBI headquarters to be unlocked, so the search was not conducted until Feb. 14, 2012. Huart moved to suppress the evidence because of the late search, but the district judge found that Huart had no reasonable expectation of privacy at the halfway house, and that the search was properly conducted. Huart reserved his right to appeal but pleaded guilty.
The Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, reaching only the expectation of privacy issue. To win a Fourth Amendment argument, the court noted, Huart had to show that he exhibited an actual expectation of privacy, and that that expectation was reasonable. But as a prisoner, the court said, Huart could not have had a reasonable expectation of privacy. This is well-established as to conventional prisoners, the court said. Huart argued that residents in a halfway house should be treated more like probationers, but the Seventh said his situation was closer to that of someone still in custody—since he was still in custody. Furthermore, the court said, the rules of this halfway house expressly limited Huart’s privacy by requiring him to report new belongings and submit to random searches. Thus, the search was legal in any case, the court said. In a footnote, it added that a warrant is executed when the material is seized, so Huart’s second argument would also fail.
People fighting cyber crime charges frequently raise Fourth Amendment arguments, because these cases are often built around the mere existence of prohibited material in the defendant’s possession. A successful challenge to a search can prevent prosecutors from using the evidence found in that search, after which the case falls apart. As this case shows, this kind of argument is less effective in a situation where the defendant can’t expect much privacy—which, in addition to a prison, could include students in a school, people who share their computers, and other situations where common sense suggests limited privacy. And defendants may have other stumbling blocks to avoid, including police claims that they agreed to a search or spoke to police voluntarily. An experienced defense attorney can help you sort out how these rules apply to your situation and make your best possible case.