Angry Rant by IL Teacher Leads to Child Pornography Conviction

In May 2014, a substitute teacher at Highland Park High School in Highland Park, IL (a suburb just north of Chicago) raised concerns that two of his students had been cheating. Following an internal investigation, the high school not only sided with the students but told Steven Habay, then 40, that he was being released and would no longer be hired as a substitute.

Habay was apparently outraged by the school’s decision and decided to post “disparaging rants” on a Web site that he used for student assignments. Habay’s posts were so disturbing that school officials called in local police to provide additional security and investigate the source of the posts. Investigators were able to trace the posts to an IP address used by Habay, and arrested him on a charge of cyber stalking and harassment by electronic device.

During Habay’s arrest, police seized various electronic devices from his home, including a computer. A forensics examination of the computer later revealed numerous images that appeared to violate Illinois child pornography laws. Habay was re-arrested on July 16, 2014 and charged with five felony counts of child pornography possession. Police indicated that the images were of children over the age of 13 and did not appear to depict any Highland Park High School Students.

Prior to trial, Habay moved to suppress the introduction of the statements he made to the police and the evidence discovered on his computer. Habay argued to the court that he agreed to let the police examine his computer to determine if the hostile blog posts originated from his device, but that he would not have done so if he knew the police would conduct a broader review of his computer.

A month ago, the parties agreed to a bench trial by Judge Daniel Shanes on Habay’s guilt or innocence on the child pornography charges. Relying on the evidence submitted during the pre-trial hearing, Judge Shanes found Habay guilty of possession of child pornography.

At a sentencing hearing in late December, Judge Shanes denied Harbay’s motion for a new trial based on his claim of police misconduct. He then sentenced Harbay to four years and one month in prison, followed by 30 months of intensive probation. Judge Shanes also required Harbay to register as a sex offender, fulfill community service requirements, and make a $2,500 contribution to the Lake County Children’s Advocacy Center.

A hearing will be held on December 17 on Harbay’s motion to reconsider his sentence. Harbay has also indicated that he will appeal Judge Shane’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence.

This case illustrates one of the more challenging issues regarding law enforcement searches of electronic devices, and it will be interesting to see how the case is resolved on appeal. Whether the police exceeded the scope of their authority will turn on the precise language of the search warrant, the scope of the permission granted by Habay, and the details of the computer forensics review (including, for instance, the actual location of the contraband on the computer’s hard drive).

As various courts have observed, there is a substantial risk that without appropriate safeguards, a warrant to search a suspect’s electronic devices could easily turn into a “general warrant” to examine every aspect of a person’s life. This is a topic that I discussed in American Privacy; the Electronic Frontier Foundation also has a good resource that examines this issue in the context of the NSA’s domestic spying program. The United States Supreme Court acknowledged that concern when it struck down warrantless searches of cell phones in Riley v. California in 2014.

Riley, however, does not address the issue of how to minimize the risk that a law enforcement computer forensics exam will go beyond the scope of a search warrant. Even more importantly, it also does not address the much more common scenario, in which trial courts and magistrates routinely approve overly broad search warrants for electronic devices that essentially grant law enforcement permission to sift through each every bit and byte in the hunt for potential evidence.

We need to figure out some mechanism for better balancing the competing values of personal privacy and criminal investigation.

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