Thursday, August 06, 2015

Insufficient Evidence: Failing to Connect the Defendant with the Crime

The Sixth Circuit reversed a child pornography conviction because the Government failed to present sufficient evidence. In United States v. Lowe, police officers found child pornography on a computer at the defendant’s (James Lowe’s) home. But three people lived at the residence before the police search and the Court found that the Government failed to adduce evidence sufficient for any rational juror to conclude that it was the defendant, and not one of the other residents, who knowingly possessed the illegal computer files.

After developing probable cause that child pornography existed on a computer at the defendant’s residence, the police searched the residence and found three computers: a laptop with the username “Stacy;” a desktop computer; and a laptop with the username “Jamie.” It was on this third computer that the child pornography was located. The police found a form with James’s name, social security number, and date of birth in the office with the third computer.

But the Court noted that none of the computers required passwords. And the peer-to-peer file sharing program apparently involved with the child pornography had to be opened in order to potentially realize that the computer had child pornography (although there were some files that potentially could have contained illegal material in the recycling bin).

According to the Court, the Government failed because its evidence only demonstrated that the defendant owned and occasionally used the laptop, not that he was aware of the illegal material. To meet its burden, the Court suggested that the Government needed to show (if such evidence existed) that use of the illegal material occurred at or near the time the computer was used for some other purpose that identified the individual using the computer as the defendant. On the record before the Court, it concluded that “the evidence did not suggest that someone using the laptop for innocent purposes would know about the ongoing child-pornography downloads.”

The Court rarely finds cases in which the Government has failed to submit sufficient evidence--even when the Government relies only on circumstantial evidence (as it did in Lowe). Hence, this case is instructive with respect to when the Court may find that the Government's intended inferences amount to nothing more than speculation.

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