Eighth Circuit Finds that Bailee had Neither Apparent nor Actual Authority to Consent to Warrantless Search of CDs Left in his P

In June 2003, former priest James Beine, also known as Mar James, was sentenced by a federal district court to nearly 57 months in prison for possessing child pornography and a $10,000 fine. On December 23, 2003, the Eighth Circuit overturned Beine’s federal conviction and granted his suppression motion on grounds that the state police detectives violated his fourth amendment rights by a warrantless search and seizure of CDs he had left in the possession of bailee, Michael Laschobar. Because Beine did not file timely objections, his case was reviewed on a plain error standard. This reversal does not affect Beine’s 12-year state prison sentence imposed in September for exposing himself to three boys while working as a St. Louis public elementary school counselor.The discovery of the CDs containing child pornography came about while Beine was in jail on state charges of sexual misconduct. Beine had asked another prisoner to send a letter asking Laschobar, who was storing the CDs for Beine, to destroy the CDs containing the images of child pornography, but the letter was turned over to authorities who seized the discs from the Laschobar’s home. Beine was subsequently indicted on a federal count of possessing child pornography.

The federal district court advanced four reasons for denying Beine’s suppression motion:
1. Laschobar gave valid consent to the search.
2. Even if consent was invalid, the police were justified in relying on Laschobar’s apparent authority to consent.
3. Search was justified under the doctrine of abandonment.
4. The inevitable-discovery rule: the evidence would have inevitably been discovered anyway as a result of an alternative line of investigation.
The Eighth Circuit rejected all four rationales.

In response to each of the four reasons, the Eighth Circuit concluded that:
1. Although a bailee of a concealed item may have potential physical access to the contents of the item, this access does not mean the bailee has actual authority over the content of the item or to consent to another’s search of the item. Beine had taken measures such as marking the CDs as “private” or “confidential” and restricting accessibility of the content of the disks by packaging the CDs in an envelope sealed with blue tape to show that he intended privacy. Laschobar’s consent was invalid.
2. The police could not reasonably have relied on Laschobar’s apparent authority to consent when they knew what his actual authority was, which was to destroy the discs as dictated by the intercepted letter from Beine to Laschobar.
3. Beine did not abandon his CDs when he gave it to someone else to store, or when he instructs the bailee to destroy it. The destruction order was not abandonment, instead, it manifested a desire that nobody possess or examine the content of the discs, in essence, the ultimate manifestation of privacy, not abandonment.
4. For the inevitable discovery rule to apply, there has to be reasonable probability that the evidence would have been discovered by lawful means, and the government has to be pursuing a substantial alternative line of investigation at the time of the constitutional violation. In Beine’s case, the investigation appears to have been over. Beine has already been arrested on sexual misconduct charges and was serving his term in jail. The application of the inevitable-discovery rule was incorrect.
While a warrant to search the discs might have been obtained, at the time of the search, there was no valid exception to the warrant requirement to justify the detectives’ behavior. The Eighth Circuit therefore reversed the District Court opinion and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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