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United States v. Wright

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 23, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Talon G. Wright, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 18, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 14-cr-69 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook and Sykes, Circuit Judges, and Adelman, District Judge. [*]

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         A day after police responded to a domestic dispute between Talon Wright and Leslie Hamilton, an investigator returned to the couple's apartment to follow up on suspicions that Wright was in possession of child pornography. With Hamilton's consent, the investigator searched the apartment and conducted a forensic preview of a desktop computer found in the living room. The preview revealed images of child pornography on the hard drive. Wright was indicted on child-pornography and child-exploitation charges. He moved to suppress the evidence recovered from the warrantless search of his computer, arguing that Hamilton lacked authority to consent. The district judge denied the motion. Wright pleaded guilty but reserved his right to appeal the denial of suppression and now does so.

         We affirm. Although Wright owned the desktop computer, Hamilton was a joint user who enjoyed virtually unlimited access to and control over it. The computer was located in the living room of the couple's apartment, and everyone in the family, including Hamilton and her children, used it freely. These facts, which were conveyed to the investigator prior to the search and later confirmed through further investigation, establish Hamilton's common authority over the computer.

         I. Background

         On July 31, 2014, police officers in Urbana, Illinois, responded to a domestic dispute between Wright and Hamilton. In their incident report, the responding officers noted that Hamilton called Wright a "pedophile" during the altercation. Apparently no arrests were made that day.

         The following morning Urbana Police Investigator Tim McNaught, who specializes in handling crimes against children, reviewed the officers' report as a matter of course. Concerned about Hamilton's use of the word "pedophile, " Investigator McNaught contacted her and requested a meeting. Hamilton arrived at the police station that same morning. In this initial interview, Investigator McNaught sought Hamilton's permission to search the couple's apartment and computers for evidence of child pornography. Hamilton agreed and took McNaught to the apartment.

         During the search, McNaught seized a desktop computer he found in the living room; forensic analysis revealed images of child pornography on the hard drive. Wright was charged with one count of possessing child pornography, 18 U.S.C. § 2252A, and two counts of sexually exploiting a minor, id. § 2251. He moved to suppress the evidence recovered from the desktop computer, arguing that Hamilton lacked authority to consent to the warrantless search.

         At the evidentiary hearing that followed, Investigator McNaught testified about three different encounters with Hamilton on the day of the search: (1) the initial interview conducted prior to the search; (2) a discussion that occurred during the search itself; and (3) a lengthier post-search interview.

         First, Investigator McNaught described the brief interview with Hamilton that took place at the Urbana police station before the search of the apartment and computer. In that interview McNaught asked Hamilton why she called Wright a pedophile. Hamilton responded that Wright had used his cellphone to visit a website called "Jailbait." Investigator McNaught recognized "Jailbait" as a site that features pornographic images of underage girls. Hamilton also mentioned seeing a video with a disturbing title on the family's home computer. Based on this information, McNaught asked Hamilton for permission to search the couple's apartment and computers for evidence of child pornography, and Hamilton agreed.

         Next, Investigator McNaught testified about the search itself. He explained that Hamilton took him to the apartment that she shared with Wright and let him in using her key. Once inside McNaught spotted a desktop computer on the living-room floor. The computer wasn't attached to a keyboard or traditional monitor, but it was connected to a flat-screen TV. According to Investigator McNaught, Hamilton described the computer as "kind of a family computer" and said that "[a]nytime she or her kids wanted to use it, they did." She explained that they used the computer to watch movies, play games, check the children's grades, and store work-related documents. However, since the apartment's wireless Internet service had been discontinued about a month earlier, they could only access the Internet when Wright was around to use his cellphone as a wireless hotspot. Hamilton also pointed out her own laptop computer; she told the investigator that with the exception of her personal laptop, Wright owned the rest of the computer equipment in the apartment.

         Investigator McNaught then "previewed" the desktop computer's hard drive by connecting it to his own laptop, a standard forensic procedure that allows investigators to view the drive's contents without altering it. This preview revealed images of child pornography, so McNaught asked Hamilton for permission to seize the computer along with the rest of the electronic devices in the apartment for further investigation. She agreed. Off-site forensic analysis of the computer revealed additional pornographic images as well as video and still images of Wright engaging in sexually explicit conduct with a minor.

         Finally, Investigator McNaught testified about a second interview that he conducted with Hamilton after he completed his search of the apartment. During this longer follow-up interview, Hamilton described the living arrangements at the apartment, which was leased in her name. She explained that she and Wright had been in a tumultuous, "on-and-off" relationship for the last two years and had broken up several days earlier. Prior to the breakup, the couple had been living together in the apartment along with their six-month old son, three of Hamilton's children from another relationship, and two of Wright's children from another relationship. ...


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