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Morales v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

June 20, 2019

Zachary M. Morales, Appellant,
v.
State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Santa Rosa County. John F. Simon, Jr., Judge.

          Andy Thomas, Public, Defender, and Lori A. Willner, Assistant Public Defender, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Tabitha Herrera, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          JAY, J.

         In this appeal from his conviction for ten counts of possession of photographs depicting sexual conduct by a child, Appellant claims that the trial court committed reversible error in denying his motion to suppress, which asserted that law enforcement conducted an illegal warrantless search by opening and reviewing an image file that had been flagged by a private party as matching known child pornography. We affirm because the trial court properly found that Appellant failed to demonstrate that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy when he uploaded child pornography to an anonymous online chat room. Alternatively, we conclude that Appellant's motion was properly denied under the private search doctrine.

          I.

         Appellant uploaded a digital image file to an anonymous chatroom hosted by ChatStep, a private company in California. ChatStep had a subscription with PhotoDNA-a private company run by Microsoft-that compared the hash value of the file with the hash values of known images of child pornography. Upon receiving notification from PhotoDNA that the hash value of the file matched the hash value of known child pornography, ChatStep sent the image file to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which then sent the file to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). It is undisputed that no person connected with PhotoDNA, ChatStep, or NCMEC had opened and viewed the file before it was sent to FDLE. An FDLE agent opened the file and confirmed that it contained child pornography, which was used to obtain a search warrant for Appellant's home and two computers.

         After he was charged with ten counts of possession of photographs depicting sexual conduct by a child, Appellant filed a motion to suppress on the ground that FDLE conducted an unlawful search in violation of the Fourth Amendment when its agent opened the image file prior to obtaining a warrant. Appellant claimed that all evidence of child pornography-as well as his incriminating statements concerning the child pornography-had to be suppressed because the unlawful opening of the file tainted the subsequent search of Appellant's home and computers.

         At the suppression hearing, the only witness to testify was Christopher Wilkinson, a forensics specialist for the Escambia County Sheriff's Office. Wilkinson testified that the hash value of a file was a secure computer-generated algorithm that ensured the authenticity of data shared between two or more users. Wilkinson further testified (1) that a hash value was so sensitive that if one took a picture file and changed the shading of one pixel out of the millions of pixels that made up the picture, the hash value would be completely different; (2) that there had never been two different files with the same hash value other than in a lab setting where it took two supercomputers over two years to manufacture an identical hash value for two different and very small (four kilobyte) files; (3) that it was not possible for the average home computer to create the same hash value for two different pictures, each of which would contain from 256 kilobytes to 17 megabytes of data; and (4) that there was more of a chance that two random individuals shared the same DNA than two random files shared the same hash value. According to Wilkinson, when a hash value was identified in a database as child pornography, it had been identified by a human being as being child exploitative at one point in time, and it was not necessary for a company to have their employees repeatedly view such images, which often resulted in posttraumatic stress.

         After Wilkinson's testimony, the parties presented argument on whether the opening of the image file constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court then inquired about whether Appellant had a reasonable expectation of privacy when he uploaded child pornography to an online chatroom. After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court denied the motion to suppress on the ground that Appellant had not demonstrated that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy that would invoke the protections of the Fourth Amendment.

         Afterwards, Appellant entered an open plea of nolo contendere to all ten counts, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his dispositive motion to suppress. The trial court adjudicated Appellant guilty and sentenced him to 36.4 months in prison followed by 2 years of community control and 5 years of probation. This appeal followed.

         II.

         Under article I, section 12 of the Florida Constitution, the right of individuals to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures must be construed in conformity with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. Clayton v. State, 252 So.3d 827, 829 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018). "For purposes of the Fourth Amendment, a 'search' occurs only when an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy is infringed by an agent of the government." Duke v. State, 255 So.3d 478, 480 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018) (citing United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984)). Thus, "a Fourth Amendment search does not occur . . . unless 'the individual manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search,' and 'society [is] willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable.'" Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 33 (2001) (quoting California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207, 211 (1986)). "Before a defendant may ...


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