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United States v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. Idaho

October 4, 2019



          David C. Nye Chief U.S. District Court Judge


         This matter is before the Court on Johnson's Motion to Suppress. Dkt. 44. Seth Johnson asserts that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by law enforcement during a warrantless search. Johnson seeks to suppress the evidence law enforcement collected during this allegedly unconstitutional search and seizure. The Court held oral argument on the Motion on August 9, 2019. For the reasons outlined below, the Court finds good cause to DENY the Motion.


         A. 2013 Police Encounter

         Officer Nay of the Twin Falls Police Department had an encounter with Johnson in the Lowe's parking lot in 2013. During that encounter, Nay allegedly observed child pornography on Johnson's cell phone. This 2013 incident is not part of the current Indictment against Johnson. It is not part of the criminal charges pending against Johnson. Instead, it is being offered by the Government under Rule 404(b). Evidence of this incident is more appropriately addressed under a Motion in Limine and will not be addressed in this Decision.

         B. 2017 Arrest Incident

         Johnson was convicted of being a Felon in Possession of a Firearm in 2009.[1] U.S. v. Johnson, 1:09-cr-287-BLW. In 2017, while Johnson was still on supervised release from the 2009 conviction his probation officer spoke to two young ladies. One of the young ladies was Johnson's eighteen-year-old girlfriend. The other was the girlfriend's sixteen-year-old sister. Following that conversation, the probation officer filed a Petition to Revoke supervised probation. That petition alleged that Johnson had (1) unapproved contact with children under eighteen because the sixteen-year-old sister spent the night at Johnson's house; (2) possession or use of a computer without prior permission from probation; (3) consumed alcohol; and (4) possessed a firearm. Id., 1:09-cr-287-BLW, ECF 96, at 1-2 (Nov. 29, 2017). Based on the Petition and its allegations, the Court issued an arrest warrant for Johnson. Id., ECF 97 (Nov. 29, 2017).

         The U.S. Probation Office and U.S. Marshal Service's Greater Idaho Fugitive Task Force arrested Johnson on November 29, 2017, pursuant to the arrest warrant. When arrested, Johnson had a black Samsung flip-phone in his possession. The U.S. Probation Office requested that Homeland Security Investigation (“HSI”) search and preserve the Samsung flip-phone. HSI created an image of the phone's contents and an HSI Computer Forensics Agent, Brad Thrall, began a review of the contents of the phone. He immediately observed child pornography, so he ceased his review and sought a federal search warrant to do a more extensive analysis of the phone's contents. The Court issued a search warrant for his phone, an undeveloped roll of film, and a video camera. With the search warrants, HSI searched all three items but found only the six originally viewed illicit images.

         On July 11, 2018, a Federal Grand Jury indicted Johnson for production of child pornography, possession of child pornography, and production of child pornography while a registered sex offender. Now, Johnson seeks to suppress all evidence collected from his phone, claiming the search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.


         On a motion to suppress based upon the Fourth Amendment, the trial court must determine the reasonableness of the search under the totality of the circumstances. Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 39 (1996). Johnson argues that “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment - subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Dkt 44-1, at 9-10, (quoting California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991)). It is the Government's burden to establish that it was justified in conducting the warrantless search of the phone. United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 51 (1951).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Johnson argues that the special conditions of supervision he was under at the time of his arrest narrowly limited the authority to conduct any search to a “United States probation officer.” He then argues that the search of the phone done by HSI on November 30, 2016, was not ...

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