Exigent circumstances saves evidence of child sexual exploitation
A recent case demonstrates the exigent circumstances doctrine in a warrantless search and seizure of evidence
This article was featured in Lexipol's Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!
UNITED STATES V. MEYER, 2021 WL 5706992 (8th Cir. 2021)
This case is an excellent illustration of the exigent circumstances doctrine in a situation that does not feature a hot pursuit or the threat of imminent harm. Rather, we see an exigency based on reasonable inferences about a suspect’s actions when confronted with a knock-and-talk situation. The state and federal agents involved in this case performed in outstanding textbook fashion to meet the requirements of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement, without improperly creating the exigency and risking suppression of the evidence.
Agents learned of PayPal connections between William Meyer and persons in the Philippines who were livestreaming sex acts involving children. Agents went to Meyer’s house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to conduct a knock-and-talk. Meyer agreed to speak with them; they conversed in an agent’s car.
Meyer made several suspicious statements, first confirming his personal and financial ties with the Filipinos, and then telling agents he used his computer and cellphone to communicate with them. The agents asked Meyer if he would let them examine the computer and cellphone. Meyer didn’t immediately refuse; he told agents he needed to check his “email and stuff” first. An agent bluntly told Meyer they were worried he would delete information from the devices. Meyer refused to allow the agents into his house, explaining the house was “a mess” and “not in any condition to entertain people.”
Meyer got out of the car and went inside his house. Agents called a prosecutor and confirmed there was an exigent circumstance to enter without a warrant. Agents knocked on Meyer’s door, entered and searched the house for electronic devices. They seized two computers, a cellphone and a hard drive. The agents did not search the devices until they had secured a search warrant.
The search of the devices “revealed a hoard of child pornography.” The hard drive contained videos downloaded through Skype showing children performing sex acts and revealed Meyer watching the sex acts in the corner of the screen. The hard drive also held lewd messages between Meyer and a minor girl and evidence that Meyer had sent money to pay for the sex performances shown in the videos.
Meyer pleaded guilty to one count of sexual exploitation of children, reserving his right to challenge the search of his house and the seizure of the electronic devices.
“The default rule for entering a home to search and retrieve evidence is to get a warrant first” (Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006)). However, when exigent circumstances are coupled with probable cause to enter, an officer may enter and search a residence without a warrant. The exigent circumstances doctrine excuses compliance with the Fourth Amendment warrant clause in four general circumstances:
- When an officer is in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon
- When it is necessary to prevent imminent destruction of evidence
- To prevent a suspect’s escape
- In response to a risk of danger to the police or others
This last circumstance is often referred to as the “emergency aid doctrine.” All four factors are considered in light of the “risk of danger, the gravity of the crime and the likelihood that the suspect is armed” (Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91 (1990)).
Meyer argued there was no probable cause to enter and that there was no exigency. He also asserted that, even if there was an exigency, the agents created it. In Kentucky v. King (563 U.S. 452 (2011)), the Supreme Court limited the exigent circumstances rule where police create the very exigency used to justify warrantless entry: “Under this doctrine, police may not rely on the need to prevent destruction of evidence when that exigency was ‘created’ or ‘manufactured’ by the conduct of the police.”
The appellate court first knocked down Meyer’s complaint of no probable cause. Before the agents entered Meyer’s house, they knew he had ties to persons facilitating the livestreamed sexual abuse and that Meyer personally knew these persons and had stayed with them when he traveled to the Philippines. The agents also knew Meyer had paid thousands of dollars to the abusers and to one of the abused children. Finally, the agents were aware that Meyer had not told his wife about some of the money he sent to the Philippines. The agents identified Meyer’s Skype username as “prettyvirginfilipino.” “On these facts, probable cause is not a close call,” the court ruled.
The court also easily concluded the agents had assessed a fair probability there would be incriminating evidence on Meyer’s devices. Meyer told the agents he used his computer and cellphone to communicate with the abusers in the Philippines and that he was in regular contact with them. The agents also noted Meyer’s Skype profile was a variant of the first name of one of the minor victims.
Meyer claimed some of the money sent to the Philippines was for humanitarian purposes. The court noted that “just because Meyer had an innocent explanation for some of these facts did not mean the officers had to believe him. As the Supreme Court has put it, ‘probable cause does not require officers to rule out a suspect’s innocent explanation for suspicious facts’” (District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018)).
That there was probable cause to enter and a fair probability the devices contained evidence still didn’t resolve the matter. Meyer further claimed the agents lacked a sufficient basis to reasonably believe he would imminently destroy evidence. The court reasoned Meyer’s evasive answers, plus his insistence on using his devices to check his “email and stuff” before allowing the agents to examine them, “led to a sense of urgency, a now-or-never scenario.”
Finally, the court made short work of Meyer’s claim that the agents created the exigency. Acknowledging that the knock-and-talk technique is a valid investigative technique, the court observed the agents “could not have manufactured or created an exigency that already existed.” The exigency arose when Meyer made suspicious statements, gave multiple excuses, and, in doing so, failed to cooperate with the agents’ requests to examine his electronic devices. The court also held the agents’ statements never threatened to violate Meyer’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Meyer made the bizarre argument that the agents created the exigency by “planting the idea of destroying evidence in his mind” and by telling him they could come back with a search warrant at a time that might not be convenient for him. The court responded: “Just because asking tough questions and closely scrutinizing the answers could lead a suspect to destroy evidence does not mean that [the agents] created the exigency.”
Meyer, a 65-year-old man, complained about his sentence of 30 years in prison. The appellate court offered him no relief. When released, he’ll be on probation until he is 100 years old.