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Indiana Law Requiring Former Prisoners to Consent to Search and Monitoring of Their Computers Held Unconstitutional

On June 24, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton struck down Section 8(b) of Indiana Public Law 119, which required sex offenders and violent offenders who had completed their sentences and were no longer on parole, probation or any other form of correctional supervision to “consent” to the search of their computers or other devices with Internet capabilities. The law also required the installation on the same devices, at the offender’s expense, of hardware or software to monitor their Internet use. Failure to provide such consent was punishable as a felony.

With the assistance of the ACLU of Indiana, ex-offenders John Doe and Steve Morris filed a pre-enforcement challenge to Section 8(b) against all Indiana prosecutors on behalf of a class of “all persons, current and future, who are required to register as sex or violent offenders pursuant to Indiana law and who are not currently on parole or probation or court supervision.”

Doe and Morris argued that the law violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and the requirement that probable cause exists before a warrant is issued. They sought a declaratory judgment that the consent-to-search requirement under Section 8(b) was unconstitutional.

Calling Section 8(b) the “broad[est] intrusion on personal privacy and security, without a warrant, probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion, for persons not in prison or subject to parole, probation, or other court supervision,” Judge Hamilton had little difficulty in concluding the law was unconstitutional.

The right of individuals to retreat into their homes without worry of unreasonable intrusion by the government strikes at the “very core” of the protections of the Fourth Amendment, Judge Hamilton wrote. By requiring members of the plaintiff class to consent to the search of their personal computers or Internet capable devices “at any time,” the state crossed this “fundamental boundary” and dispensed with the warrant requirement.

While valid consent can waive the protections of the Fourth Amendment, such consent must be freely and voluntarily given and not based on duress or coercion. Section 8(b), however, was not premised on valid consent, Judge Hamilton found. If a person subject to Section 8(b) refused to “consent” to the search and monitoring of their Internet capable devices, they were subject to prosecution for a felony. Having to choose between going to jail or allowing the search was “no choice at all.”

Further, the district court rejected the state’s assertion that Section 8(b) was a “logical extension of felons’ loss of certain freedoms.” While offenders may lose certain rights as a result of their criminal convictions, the Fourth Amendment’s protections are “fundamental,” Judge Hamilton held. “A person’s status as a felon who is no longer under any form of punitive supervision therefore does not permit the government to search his home and belongings without a warrant.”

Finally, the district court dismissed the state’s argument that Section 8(b) was supported by the so-called “special needs” doctrine. The state argued that it had a “special need” to conduct suspicionless searches of ex-offenders’ computers and Internet capable devices at any time in order to protect the public. The special needs exception, however, “cannot be based on the ordinary and important law enforcement purpose of reducing crime,” Judge Hamilton wrote. To hold otherwise would allow the exception “to replace the Fourth Amendment itself.”

Accordingly, the court issued a declaratory judgment that Section 8(b) was unconstitutional as applied to offenders who have completed their sentences and are no longer under any form of parole, probation or other correctional supervision. See: Doe v. Prosecutor, Marion County, 566 F.Supp.2d 862 (S.D. Ind. 2008).

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Related legal case

Doe v. Prosecutor