Evidence Establishing The "Ownership Of And Access To The Computers"

Eleventh Circuit affirms the admission of Internet search evidence and evidence concerning "the ownership of and access to the computers"; the jury was allowed to considered competing theories on "the ownership of and access to the computers" which went to the weight of evidence, in United States v. Flanders, _ F.3d _ (11th Cir. May 27, 2014) (Nos. 12–10995, 12–15027, 12–15248)

When it comes to computer evidence, two evidence issues that often arise concern the relevancy of any uncovered evidence and determining who the computer user was. These issues were recently noted by the Eleventh Circuit.

Trial Court Proceedings: Suggesting Another Computer User

In the case, defendant Flanders was charged with conspiracy to induce “women to engage in sex trafficking through fraud” and related offenses. During one search of the defendant's residence that he "shared with his girlfriend and her sister, officers seized four computers and memory devices, a cellphone, a camera, numerous videos of victims (some packaged for sale), Model Release Forms for five victims, and a copy of one victim’s student ID." A review of the computer evidence identified Internet searches "for sex with unconscious women." At trial, the defendant objected to the introduction of the Internet searches evidence which the trial court overruled. The defendant also contended that his girlfriend may have been using the computer during the times of the Internet searches. After the jury convicted the defendant, he challenged the admission of this evidence on appeal.

Eleventh Circuit Review: Relevancy And Weight Of The Evidence

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the defendant's argument that the Internet search evidence was irrelevant under FRE 401. the circuit noted the evidence "was probative because, at a minimum, it demonstrated either: (1) that [defendant] Flanders was performing background research for his scheme, which involved and relied upon sexual performances by or with drugged women; or (2) that [defendant] Flanders enjoyed viewing images of sexual intercourse with unconscious women. Under either or both scenarios, the evidence was relevant." Flanders, _ F.3d at _. Further, the circuit concluded that the "evidence would have enabled the jury to compare the searches (and any resulting images) with the allegations against the Defendants for any similarities." (citing United States v. Pruitt, 638 F.3d 763, 767 (11th Cir. 2011) (discussing jury’s consideration of the record of Internet searches using terms related to child pornography)).

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the admission of the evidence concerning "the ownership of and access to the computers." As the circuit explained:

There was no evidence adduced at trial as to the owner of the computers found in the residence Flanders shared with his girlfriend. Rather, the jury was presented with computer analysis establishing that Flanders’s email was used and that someone logged into the computers and conducted hundreds of searches of modeling websites and for images of sex with unconscious women. The jury could infer that Flanders, not his girlfriend, conducted these searches, particularly in light of the fact that they were conducted at times when Flanders’s girlfriend was working. Nevertheless, Flanders’s arguments do not strike at the relevancy of the evidence, but rather the weight the jury was entitled to assign to it.

Flanders, _ F.3d at _.

Conclusion

The Flanders case provides another example of how evidence obtained from a computer may be admitted including the issue of who the computer owner and user is. Often the jury will be able to consider competing theories and the weight of the evidence.

The Federal Evidence Blog recently noted the issue of establishing who the computer user was through expert forensic testimony. See Expert Forensic Testimony About Who Created And Transferred Certain Computer Images.

For another issue in the Flanders case, see Partial Courtroom Closure During Closing Argument Did Not Violate The Sixth Amendment Right To A Public Trial.

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