Don’t lend your Wi-Fi to sex offenders

UNITED STATES V. SANDELL2022 WL 619156 (8th Cir. 2022)

Mark Sandell moved to a new area and asked his neighbors, who felt like neighbors, to use their Wi-Fi so he could access the internet and register his sex offender status. For regular readers of Xiphos, that would be a “hint”. The neighbors agreed. Their generosity was rewarded with investigators who knocked on their door, interrogated them and searched their home. After interviewing neighbors and finding no contraband in their home, officers ruled out the neighbors as suspects. One of the residents then informed officers that he had shared his Wi-Fi password with Sandell.

Officers went next door to speak with Sandell. They knocked, Sandell answered, and the officers identified themselves, asking Sandell to step outside while they conducted a protective sweep of the house. Once they determined no one else was home, officers asked Sandell where he would like to speak. He said he preferred to talk in his living room. Officers then followed Sandell into his living room and explained that they were trying to obtain a search warrant for Sandell’s home based on information from his neighbors. An officer informed Sandell that he was not under arrest and did not have to speak to them. Sandell refused to consent to a search of the house.

Officers again reminded Sandell that he did not have to speak to them and told him he was free to go. They told him that if he chose to drive, they would ask permission to search his car. They also told Sandell they needed to monitor his movements inside the house to make sure Sandell didn’t have access to any weapons or tamper with evidence. Sandell left his dog outside, took his medicine, made coffee, used the restroom and retrieved his probation officer’s phone number from a separate floor of the house as officers watched.

During the conversation as Sandell moved around the house, he admitted to downloading child pornography. He voluntarily handed over a camera and USB drives, saying he likely faced 15 years in prison. Sandell wouldn’t talk about his previous conviction for a similar crime. Officers eventually obtained a search warrant and recovered Sandell’s laptop, USB drives and DVDs. Based on the evidence from the search, Sandell was charged with distributing, receiving and possessing child pornography.

Sandell asked the court to suppress the statements made at his home. He claimed that the police questioned him without providing any Miranda Warning. The trial court refused to suppress his statements and the appeals court upheld.

the Miranda the rule applies when there is both police custody and interrogation (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)). The court ruled that Sandell was not in custody. Thus, the agents did not need to inform Sandell of his Miranda rights. Officers repeatedly informed Sandell that he was not under arrest, was free to go, and did not have to speak to them. On the contrary, he spoke voluntarily to the officers, who did not use coercive or deceptive tactics. Sandell was not immediately arrested and there were not as many officers (only four) in the house to create a de facto Stop.

Three things to remember from this case: First, whenever possible, remember to talk nice, think mean. The officers’ friendly tone and non-coercive investigative techniques were the main factor here. Second, be careful when sharing your Wi-Fi password. This could lead to a search warrant in your home. Third, Sandell proves once again: We catch idiots.

NEXT: Speak Nice, Think Evil, Seize Child Porn, Get Convicted

Dorothy H. Lewis