CAAFlog » October 2016 Term » United States v. Gurczyski

CAAF decided the certified Army case of United States v. Gurczynski, 76 M.J. 381, No. 17-0139/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Monday, July 24, 2017. Rejecting a Government interlocutory appeal of a military judge’s ruling suppressing evidence, CAAF finds that the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement does not apply because the underlying search was unreasonable due to the fact that it was based on a warrant issued for offenses of which the appellant was convicted at a different court-martial nine months prior. CAAF affirms the military judge’s suppression ruling and the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.

Private (E-1) Gurczynski is charged with two specifications of wrongful possession of child pornography, and the suppressed evidence is the images that are the subject of the specifications. These charges are tangentially related to Gurczynski’s commission of sexual offenses with a child (and other offenses) to which he pleaded guilty in 2014 (CCA op. here). The images were discovered on devices seized from Gurczynski pursuant to a warrant that authorized a search for evidence of communications with the child victim. But that discovery occurred five months after Gurczynski’s guilty pleas, and nine months after the warrant was issued.

The circumstances of the search (including that the searcher did not obtain a new warrant after suspecting the presence of child pornography) led to a motion to suppress that was granted by the military judge. The prosecution appealed but the Army court affirmed. The Judge Advocate General of the Army then certified a single, straightforward issue to CAAF:

Whether the military judge erred in suppressing evidence of child pornography a digital forensic examiner discovered during a search for appellee’s communications with a child victim.

CAAF heard oral argument on March 15, 2017 (noted here). Then it specified a different issue and ordered additional briefs:

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. Was the search of [Gurczynski’]s thumb drive unreasonable, despite being executed pursuant to a facially valid warrant, in light of the facts that: 1) [Gurczynski] was convicted of the offense for which the search warrant was issued five months prior to the search; and 2) over nine months had passed between the issuance of the search warrant and the digital examination of the seized devices?

Slip op. at 5. With today’s opinion the court finds that the search was not reasonable, and that the military judge did not err, for three reasons:

First, Appellee [Gurczynski] had already been convicted of the offenses for which the warrant was issued. Second, the warrant and supporting affidavits did not mention child pornography. Third, SA JT [the searcher] nonetheless directed the DFE [digital forensic examination] to search for child pornography.

Slip op. at 5.

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Audio of Wednesday’s oral arguments at CAAF is available at the following links:

United States v. Richards, No. 16-0727/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Gurczynski, No. 17-0139/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the certified Army case of United States v. Gurczynski, No. 17-0139/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, after the argument in Richards. A single issue continues an interlocutory Government appeal of a military judge’s ruling suppressing evidence:

Whether the military judge erred in suppressing evidence of child pornography a digital forensic examiner discovered during a search for appellee’s communications with a child victim.

Private (E-1) Gurczynski is charged with two specifications of wrongful possession of child pornography, and the suppressed evidence is the images that are the subject of the specifications. These charges are tangentially related to Gurczynski’s commission of sexual offenses with a child (and other offenses) to which he pleaded guilty in 2014 (CCA op. here). The images were discovered on devices seized from Gurczynski pursuant to a warrant that authorized a search for evidence of communications with the child victim.

In his ruling suppressing the images the military judge found that:

“[SA CJP] opened item 18 – the thumb drive – and saw several file names of videos normally associated with child pornography” and “[SA CJP] immediately suspected that these video files were child pornography.” (JA 167) (emphasis added). The military judge did not find SA CJP saw an image preview indicative of child pornography, nor did he find that SA CJP’s suspicion was based on an image preview. (JA 167).

The military judge also found that “[w]ithout seeking or obtaining a new search warrant, [SA CJP] opened one file and viewed it and determined that, based upon his professional experience in such matters, the video was child pornography.” (JA 167).

Appellee’s Br. at 10. The military judge determined that this action exceeded the scope of the warrant and suppressed the resulting images. The Army CCA affirmed. Gurczynski’s brief relies heavily on the military judge’s finding of fact as a basis to affirm the suppression.

The Army Appellate Government Division, however, asserts that the military judge got the facts wrong:

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Right on the heels of CAAF’s grant in Richards (discussed here) comes this certification by the Judge Advocate General of the Army yesterday:

No. 17-0139/AR. United States, Appellant v. Justin M. Gurczyski, Appellee. CCA 20160402. Notice is hereby given that a certificate for review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals was filed under Rule 22 on this date on the following issue:

WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ERRED IN SUPPRESSING EVIDENCE OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY A DIGITAL FORENSIC EXAMINER DISCOVERED DURING A SEARCH FOR APPELLEE’S COMMUNICATIONS WITH A CHILD VICTIM.

The Army CCA’s opinion is available here.

The accused is charged with two specifications of wrongful possession of child pornography, and the suppressed evidence is the images that are the subject of the specifications. These charges are tangentially related to the accused’s commission of sexual offenses with a child (and other offenses) to which he pleaded guilty in 2014 (CCA op. here). The images were discovered on a flash drive and a hard drive seized from the accused pursuant to a warrant in connection with those other charges but not actually searched until after the guilty pleas. The warrant authorized a search for evidence that the accused communicated with his child victim. During the search, however:

[W]hen SA CP opened the thumb drive during the DFE, he saw several file names of videos normally associated with child pornography, as well as a photo of the appellant. SA CP, suspecting the video files contained child pornography, and without obtaining a new or expanded search warrant, opened one of the files and concluded, based on his professional experience, that it was child pornography. After that, SA CP searched other media seized from appellant’s home and found additional child pornography on a computer hard drive.

Slip op. at 3. “Based on these facts, the military judge concluded CID exceeded the scope of the warrant in searching the thumb drive and granted appellant’s motion to suppress the child pornography found on the thumb drive and computer hard drive.” Slip op. at 3. The CCA affirmed.