Opinion Analysis: Nine months and an intervening conviction make any search constitutionally unreasonable in United States v. Gurczynski, No. 17-0139/AR
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.