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United States v. Brown, No. 11-5048

Decided:  December 6, 2012

In this case, Defendant Daniel J. Brown appealed his conviction and sentence in the Western District of Virginia for a child pornography offense.  Specifically, Brown argued that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence that had been recovered from his personal laptop computer outside of his place of business.  Additionally, Brown argued that the district court erred in vacating and dismissing the lesser-included offense of possessing child pornography instead of the greater-included offense of receiving child pornography.  The Fourth Circuit rejected both of Brown’s arguments on appeal and affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Brown’s first argument on appeal stemmed from the fact that the search warrant that the police acted upon did not authorize their seizure of his personal computer but only authorized them to search the place of his employment.  Because the government did not contest this fact, the court “proceed[ed] on the proposition that the seizure of Brown’s laptop was warrantless.”  However, after acknowledging the Fourth Amendment’s protection of citizens “against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the court noted that “there are ‘a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions’ to the search warrant requirement.”  The court found the “exigent circumstances” exception to apply in this case based on its finding that the search warrant established that there was probable cause to search Brown’s place of employment.  Therefore, given the establishment of probable cause, the court found that the police’s subsequent inquiries about Brown’s laptop computer were lawful and proper.

Furthermore, the court found that exigent circumstances existed based on the police’s need to prevent the laptop and its contents from being damaged or destroyed.  The court supported its conclusion that the police’s seizure of Brown’s laptop was proper using two cases from the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits which determined that the Fourth Amendment was not violated when a warrantless seizure was necessary to prevent the damage or disappearance of evidence.

The court also rejected Brown’s second argument that the district court erred in denying his motion to dismiss and in sentencing him solely based on the greater-included offense of receiving child pornography.  The court determined that the district court “did not abuse its discretion by denying Brown’s motion and striking the lesser-included offense of possession of child pornography.”  Instead, the court found that “the court properly adhered to a long line of authorities directing vacation of the conviction that carries the more lenient penalty when a defendant is convicted of both a greater and a lesser included offense” and cited to several precedent cases from the Fourth and other circuits.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite