Law enforcement has a number of informants working for it and the companies that already pay their paychecks, like UPS, for example. It also has a number of government employees working for the TSA, keeping their eyes peeled for “suspicious” amounts of cash it can swoop in and seize.
Unsurprisingly, the FBI also has a number of paid informants. Some of these informants apparently work at Best Buy — Geek Squad by day, government informants by… well, also by day.
According to court records, Geek Squad technician John “Trey” Westphal, an FBI informant, reported he accidentally located on Rettenmaier’s computer an image of “a fully nude, white prepubescent female on her hands and knees on a bed, with a brown choker-type collar around her neck.” Westphal notified his boss, Justin Meade, also an FBI informant, who alerted colleague Randall Ratliff, another FBI informant at Best Buy, as well as the FBI. Claiming the image met the definition of child pornography and was tied to a series of illicit pictures known as the “Jenny” shots, agent Tracey Riley seized the hard drive.
Not necessarily a problem, considering companies performing computer/electronic device repair are legally required to report discovered child porn to law enforcement. The difference here is the paycheck. This Geek Squad member had been paid $500 for digging around in customers’ computers and reporting his findings to the FBI. That changes the motivation from legal obligation to a chance to earn extra cash by digging around in files not essential to the repair work at hand.
More of a problem is the FBI’s tactics. While it possibly could have simply pointed to the legal obligation Best Buy has to report discovered child porn, it proactively destroyed this argument by apparently trying to cover up the origin of its investigation, as well as a couple of warrantless searches.
Setting aside the issue of whether the search of Rettenmaier’s computer constituted an illegal search by private individuals acting as government agents, the FBI undertook a series of dishonest measures in hopes of building a case, according to James D. Riddet, Rettenmaier’s San Clemente-based defense attorney. Riddet says agents conducted two additional searches of the computer without obtaining necessary warrants, lied to trick a federal magistrate judge into authorizing a search warrant, then tried to cover up their misdeeds by initially hiding records.
The “private search” issue is mentioned briefly in OC Weekly’s report, but should be examined more closely. Private searches are acceptable, but the introduction of cash payments, as well as the FBI having an official liaison with Best Buy suggests the searches aren’t really “private.” Instead, the FBI appears to be using private searches to route around warrant requirements. That’s not permissible and even the FBI’s belief that going after the “worst of worst” isn’t going to be enough to salvage these warrantless searches.
As Andrew Fleischman points out at Fault Lines, the government’s spin on the paid “private search” issue — that it’s “wild speculation” the Best Buy employee was acting as a paid informant when he discovered the child porn — doesn’t hold up if the situation is reversed. AUSA Anthony Brown’s defensive statement is nothing more than the noise of a double standard being erected.
Flipping the script for a minute, would an AUSA say it was “wild speculation” that a man was a drug dealer when phone records showed he regularly contacted a distributor, he was listed as a drug dealer in a special book of drug dealers, and he had received $500.00 for drugs? Sorry to break it to you, Mr. Brown, but once you start getting paid for something, it’s tough to argue you’re just doing it for the love of the game.
In addition to these problems, the file discovered by the Best Buy tech was in unallocated space… something that points to almost nothing, legally-speaking.
[I]n Rettenmaier’s case, the alleged “Jenny” image was found on unallocated “trash” space, meaning it could only be retrieved by “carving” with costly, highly sophisticated forensics tools. In other words, it’s arguable a computer’s owner wouldn’t know of its existence. (For example, malware can secretly implant files.) Worse for the FBI, a federal appellate court unequivocally declared in February 2011 (USA v. Andrew Flyer) that pictures found on unallocated space did not constitute knowing possession because it is impossible to determine when, why or who downloaded them.
This important detail was apparently glossed over in the FBI’s warrant application to search Rettenmaier’s home and personal devices.
In hopes of overcoming this obstacle, they performed a sleight-of-hand maneuver, according to Riddet. The agents simply didn’t alert Judge Marc Goldman that the image in question had been buried in unallocated space and, thus, secured deceitful authorization for a February 2012 raid on Rettenmaier’s Laguna Niguel residence.
Courts have shown an often-excessive amount of empathy for the government’s “outrageous” behavior when pursuing criminals. The fact that there’s child porn involved budges the needle in the government’s direction, but the obstacles the FBI has placed in its own way through its deceptive behavior may prevent it from salvaging this case.
The case is already on very shaky ground, with the presiding judge questioning agents’ “odd memory losses,” noting several discrepancies between the FBI’s reports and its testimony, and its “perplexing” opposition to turning over documents the defense has requested.
In any event, it appears the FBI has a vast network of informants — paid or otherwise — working for both private companies and the federal government. Considering the FBI is already the beneficiary of legal reporting requirements, this move seems ill-advised. It jeopardizes the legitimacy of the evidence, even before the FBI engages in the sort of self-sabotaging acts it appears to have done here.
Underneath it all is the perplexing and disturbing aversion to adhering to the Fourth Amendment we’ve seen time and time again from law enforcement agencies, both at local and federal levels. Anything that can be done to avoid seeking a warrant, and anything that creates an obfuscatory paper trail, is deployed to make sure the accused faces an even more uphill battle once they arrive in court.
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