Question: Do the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions protect abandoned property from warrantless search and seizure?
Quick answer: No. Abandoned property is fair game for a warrantless search.
Facts: In December 2005, Gould moved into his mother’s house and gave her a computer hard drive, asking her to “not let anybody get their hands on it.” She kept the hard drive until June 2006, when Gould’s brother warned that it might contain child pornography. She then gave the hard drive back to Gould, who had since moved into his brother’s apartment. But in August 2006, Gould stole his brother’s truck and left town without taking any of his belongings. Gould’s mother got the hard drive and gave it to Toledo police. She told a detective she had kept the drive with her since December 2005 and that she believed her son had abandoned it. The detective booked the drive in the department’s property room and attempted to locate Gould. About three months later, after police had no success finding Gould, Gould’s mother gave her consent to search the hard drive. A forensic search revealed child pornography, including pictures of Gould having sex with his ex-girlfriend’s 7-year-old daughter. Gould was later found living in Michigan and was charged with various sex crimes, including rape.
Why the case is important: Officers can search property that they reasonably believe is abandoned because there is no personal or societal expectation of privacy for abandoned property. The Ohio Supreme Court found that, because Gould left his hard drive behind and did not contact his family for months, law enforcement had solid evidence to believe Gould had abandoned the drive.
Keep in mind: Before conducting a warrantless search of someone’s personal property, investigate whether that person abandoned the property. How long has the owner been without possession of the property? Has anyone made contact with the owner? If any, how long ago was the contact made? Has the owner given any indication that he would return for the property? The important point here is “reasonableness.” For example, unlike the facts in Gould, a purse sitting on a bench in a busy park is probably not “abandoned” because the owner intends to come back and get it.
to read entire opinion.