Opinion Analysis: A generalized profile of how people use electronic devices is an insufficient nexus to justify a seizure in United States v. Nieto, No. 16-0301/AR
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Nieto, 76 M.J. 101, No. 16-0301/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, February 21, 2017. Considering the validity of a search authorization that was primarily based on military investigators’ experience-based assertions regarding how people use portable electronic devices, CAAF finds that the authorization lacked probable cause and reverses the appellant’s conditional pleas of guilty and the summary affirmation of the Army CCA.
Judge Ohlson writes for the court joined by all but Judge Stucky, who dissents.
Specialist (E-4) Nieto entered conditional pleas of guilty to numerous offenses that were discovered after he was accused of using a cell phone to surreptitiously record other soldiers using the toilet at Forward Operating Base Azizullah, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. After Nieto’s apprehension, an Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) special agent obtained authorizations to seize and search Nieto’s cell phone and also his laptop. The allegation did not involve the laptop, but the agent sought to include the laptop in the authorization based on his experience that “Soldiers using their cell phones to photograph things . . . back those up to their laptops . . .” Slip op. at 4 (quoting record). A second agent obtained a second authorization with the additional commentary that:
About 1024, 4 Jun 13, [Appellant] admitted to using his cellular telephone to view and record Soldiers utilizing the latrine while at FOB Azi Zullah [sic], Afghanistan. [Appellant] admitted to masturbating to the images on his cellular telephone of Soldiers utilizing the latrine.
It is my [i.e., SA Dunn’s,] experience as a CID Special Agent that persons who would use a portable digital media recorder would also transfer the media from a portable device to a computer station or storage device. Persons who view and record sexual acts often times store and catalog their images and videos on larger storage devices such as a computer or hard drive.
Slip op. at 5 (quoting record) (marks in original). Incriminating evidence was found on the laptop (leading to additional charges) but the cell phone “revealed nothing relevant to CID’s investigation.” Slip op. at 5 (marks omitted).
At trial Nieto unsuccessfully challenged the search authorizations as lacking probable cause to search the laptop, and his conditional pleas preserved his right to continue that challenge on appeal. The Army CCA summarily affirmed. CAAF then granted review of one issue:
Whether the military judge erred in denying Appellant’s motion to suppress the evidence seized from Appellant’s laptop computer
Today’s opinion finds no probable cause to seize the laptop based on “an insufficient nexus between Appellant’s cell phone and his laptop that can be inferred based on the particular facts presented to the military magistrate.” Slip op at 10 n.4. This conclusion echoes the conclusion in United States v. Hoffmann, 75 M.J. 120 (C.A.A.F. Feb. 18, 2016) (CAAFlog case page), where a unanimous CAAF rejected the adequacy of an asserted intuitive relationship between a child enticement offense and the possession of child pornography as a basis for probable cause. But Judge Stucky, who was the author of CAAF’s opinion in Hoffman, dissents from today’s opinion and decries it as “a constellation of shortcomings with regard to the law of probable cause, the facts of this case, and the application of law to fact.” Diss. op. at 10.