Don’t Loan Your Wi-Fi to Sex Offenders!

United States v. Sandell, 2022 WL 619156 (8th Cir. 2022)

Mark Sandell moved into a new area and asked his neighbors, who were feeling neighborly, 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 “clue.” The neighbors agreed. Their generosity was rewarded by investigators knocking on their door, questioning them and searching their home. After questioning the neighbors and finding no contraband in their home, the officers ruled out the neighbors as suspects. One of the residents then told the officers about sharing their 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 home. Once they determined no one else was home, the officers asked Sandell where he would like to talk. He said he preferred to speak in his living room. The officers then followed Sandell into his living room and explained they were attempting to obtain a search warrant for Sandell’s home based on the information from his neighbors. An officer informed Sandell he was not under arrest and was not obligated to talk to them. Sandell refused to consent to a search of the home.

The officers again reminded Sandell he was not obligated to speak to them and told him he was free to leave. They told him that, if he chose to drive, they would ask for consent to search his car. They also told Sandell they needed to supervise his movements inside the home to ensure Sandell did not access any weapons or tamper with evidence. Sandell let his dog outside, took his medication, made coffee, used the restroom and retrieved the phone number of his probation officer from a separate floor of the home as officers watched.

The Miranda rule applies when there is both custody and interrogation

Over the course of conversation during Sandell’s movements throughout the home, he admitted to downloading child pornography. He voluntarily turned over a camera and thumb drives, stating that he was likely facing 15 years’ imprisonment. Sandell would not talk about his prior conviction for a similar crime. The officers ultimately obtained a search warrant and collected Sandell’s laptop, thumb drives and DVDs. Based on the evidence from the search, Sandell was charged with distribution, receipt and possession of child pornography.

Sandell asked the court to suppress the statements made at his home. He claimed the officers questioned him without providing a Miranda warning. The trial court refused to suppress his statements and the appellate court affirmed.

The Miranda rule applies when there is both custody and interrogation (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)). The court held Sandell was not in custody. Thus, the officers did not need to advise Sandell of his Miranda rights. Officers informed Sandell several times he was not under arrest, that he was free to leave and that he was not obligated to speak to them. Rather, he voluntarily spoke with the officers, who did not use coercive strong-arm or deceptive tactics. Sandell was not immediately arrested and there were not so many officers (only four) in the home to create a de facto arrest.

Three things to take away from this case: First, whenever possible, remember to talk nice, think mean. The officers’ friendly tone and non-coercive investigation techniques were the major factor here. Second, be careful when you share your Wi-Fi password. It might lead to a search warrant at your house. Third, Sandell proves once again: We catch the dumb ones.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

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