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Court Holds Warrantless Search of Abandoned Computer Hard Drive Permissible Under Fourth Amendment

In Case Where Search Disclosed Evidence of Child Pornography, Rape

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2010-1315.  State v. Gould, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-71.
Lucas App. No. L-08-1383, 2010-Ohio-3437.  Judgment reversed, and convictions and sentence reinstated.
O'Connor, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, Lanzinger, O'Donnell, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, J., concurs in judgment only.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-71.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(Jan. 17, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio today held that a warrantless search of abandoned property does not violate the property owner’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches because the owner forfeits any expectation of privacy in the property after it has been abandoned.  The Court held further that, to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy in property protected by the Fourth Amendment, a person must exhibit a subjective expectation of privacy that, viewed objectively, is reasonable under the circumstances.

Applying those holdings to a Lucas County criminal case, the Court reinstated the convictions and life prison sentence of Dennis Gould of Toledo on rape and child pornography charges.  

The Court’s 7-0 decision reversed a ruling by the 6th District Court of Appeals that had vacated Gould’s convictions based on a finding that evidence obtained through a police search of a computer hard drive that Gould had left unattended at a former residence for several months after he left the city must be excluded because the search was unconstitutional.

In December 2005, after being laid off from his job, Gould moved in with his mother, Sharon Easterwood. At that time, he gave her a computer hard drive and told her to keep it and not ‘let anybody get their hands on it.’  Easterwood put the hard drive in an envelope and placed it in her nightstand. In May 2006, Gould moved into his own apartment, taking his belongings, but not the hard drive. About a month later, Gould’s twin brother, Douglas, told his mother that she should get the hard drive out of her house because it probably contained child pornography. As a result, she returned it to Gould. 

Thereafter, in August 2006, after Gould’s older brother, Gregory had moved in with him, Gould stole Gregory’s truck and left Toledo without taking any of his belongings from the apartment, and he never advised anyone of his whereabouts. Sometime later, Gregory sold Gould’s belongings at a garage sale, but before the sale, Easterwood retrieved the hard drive because of her concerns about its contents. 

On Sept. 6, 2006, Easterwood delivered the hard drive to Detective Regina Lester in the Special Victims Unit of the Toledo Police Department. According to Lester, Easterwood told her that it had been in her possession since December 2005. Easterwood further advised Lester that she believed that Gould had abandoned it and that she did not want it in her home because of her suspicions about its contents. 

Lester did not attempt to access the data on the hard drive but booked it into the police property room and began efforts to locate Gould. In December 2006, after three months of attempts to contact Gould,  Lester obtained permission from Easterwood for a police search of the hard drive. 

A forensic examination conducted by Detective Jim Dec disclosed child pornography, including images of Gould engaging in sexual conduct with a seven-year-old child. Police identified the victim as the daughter of Gould’s former girlfriend. Federal marshals ultimately arrested Gould in Lansing, Michigan, and returned him to Toledo. 

Based on the images discovered on the hard drive, a grand jury subsequently indicted Gould on two counts of rape, one count of gross sexual imposition, six counts of pandering sexually oriented material involving a minor, and five counts of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material or performance. Gould moved to suppress the evidence obtained through the search of the hard drive, asserting that police had illegally searched it in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion, finding that “Lester reasonably could have believed that [Gould] had abandoned any reasonable expectation of privacy in the hard-drive,” such that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The case proceeded to trial, and a jury returned verdicts finding Gould guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences for the rape convictions, and received additional prison terms for the other offenses. 

On review, the 6th District Court of Appeals court reversed the judgment of conviction and held that the trial court should have suppressed the evidence obtained from the hard drive as the product of an illegal search, stating that “Lester’s subjective belief that the hard drive had been abandoned was unsupported by the objective facts and Easterwood's testimony.” The 6th District therefore concluded that “the state failed to demonstrate by credible, competent evidence that the hard drive was abandoned.”

Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Justice Terrence O’Donnell referenced a line of federal court cases dating back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Smith v. Maryland and including  United States v. Hershenow (1982), United States v. Chandler (1999) and United States v. Davis (2010). He also cited the Supreme Court of Ohio’s 1980 decision in State v. Freeman as a state precedent addressing searches of property that an owner has abandoned.

Justice O’Donnell wrote: “The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches does not apply to property that has been voluntarily abandoned, because society does not recognize an expectation of privacy in abandoned property as being objectively reasonable.”   

“ ... As in Hershenow, Freeman, Chandler, and Davis, here the evidence similarly weighs against a finding that Gould had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in the hard drive.  He left the hard drive in his apartment with his other belongings when he stole his brother’s truck and left Toledo sometime in August 2006.  From the time he left Toledo until his arrest by federal marshals sometime before June 3, 2007, Gould never inquired about the hard drive or attempted to assert control over it or its location, he concealed his whereabouts, and he never knew the hard drive had been removed from his apartment when his brother sold his other belongings.”

“And even if we consider the period of time from when Gould left Toledo until Detective Dec searched the hard drive in December 2006, the facts reveal that Gould had not made any inquiry about the hard drive or asserted control over it for almost four months. Hence, the police could have reasonably concluded Gould had abandoned it.” 

“Thus, based on his conduct, Gould had no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in the hard drive because when he relocated to Michigan he abandoned it by leaving it in his Toledo apartment without the ability to exert control over it. And, as the courts concluded in Chandler and Davis and as we held in Freeman, a warrantless search of abandoned property does not offend the Fourth Amendment. ... Accordingly, the judgment of the court of appeals ordering the exclusion of the evidence obtained from the hard drive is reversed, and Gould’s convictions and sentence are reinstated.”

Justice O’Donnell’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Robert R. Cupp and Yvette McGee Brown. Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concurred in judgment only.

Contacts
Evy M. Jarrett, 419.213.2001, for the state and Lucas County prosecutor's office.

Jeremy J. Masters, 614.466.5394, for Dennis Gould.