The North Carolina Supreme Court held in State v. Terrell, __ N.C. __ (Aug. 16, 2019), that a private party’s limited search of a defendant’s thumb drive did not frustrate the defendant’s legitimate expectation of privacy in the entire contents of the electronic storage device. The detective who searched on the heels of the private party could not be virtually certain that he would find nothing else of significance on the device or that his search would do no more than corroborate what the private searcher had told him. Thus, the court concluded that the detective could not lawfully search additional folders on the thumb drive without a warrant after the private party turned the device over to law enforcement.
Author’s note: The North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Terrell, ___ N.C. ___, 831 S.E.2d 17 (Aug. 16, 2019), affirmed the court of appeals judgment discussed below. The state supreme court’s decision is discussed here.
More than thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Jacobson, 466 U.S. 109 (1984), defined the private search doctrine. Jacobson held that the Fourth Amendment is not implicated by the government’s inspection of private effects when that inspection follows on the heels of a private party’s search and does not exceed its scope. This is because the search by the private party frustrates an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the item or area searched.
Jacobson thus determined that federal agents’ warrantless examination of a package of cocaine discovered by Federal Express employees and their field testing of its contents was not a Fourth Amendment search. When federal agents inspected the contents of the package, they “learn[ed] nothing that had not previously been learned during the private search,” and when they tested the substance to determine whether it was cocaine, they did not abridge any legitimate privacy interest.
In the ensuing decades, state and federal courts have applied and refined this analysis to determine the lawfulness of warrantless governmental searches of videotapes, computer disks, luggage, and other items turned over to law enforcement officials by private parties. And yesterday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Terrell, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2018), considered whether the private-search doctrine insulated from Fourth Amendment scrutiny the government’s search of a USB flash drive turned over by the defendant’s girlfriend after she discovered among its contents a photo of her nine-year-old granddaughter sleeping without a shirt on.