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Tim Bilecki

Lawful Inspection Under M.R.E. 313 Versus an Unlawful Fourth Amendment Search

Jun 14, 2011

United States v. Rendon, 607 F.3d 982 (4th Cir. 2010) deals with the issues if lawful inspection under M.R.E 313 and unlawful Fourth Amendment search. The issue before the court was simple: was the search of Rendon’s MP3 player a lawful inspection under M.R.E. 313, or an unlawful Fourth Amendment search.

Rendon conditionally pled guilty to possession of child pornography in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia after losing a motion to suppress the child pornography based on an unlawful search.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that the search of Rendon’s MP3 player was a lawful inspection under M.R.E. 313(d). The court explained why the inspection was still lawful:

(1) The searchers thought they were conducting an “inventory” and not an “inspection.” The court said the label of a search/inspection under M.R.E. 313 is not dispositive; what is more important is the “substance and purpose of the search.” (p. 991).

(2) There was no need to search an item that was already confiscated for the remainder of his time in the unit. The court provided a thorough review of federal and military case law on the special government needs an exception to the Fourth Amendment, the different Fourth Amendment standards for the “military society,” and more specifically, the justifications for military inspections under M.R.E. 313(b), including the doctrine concerning subterfuge searches. When the court applied those principles to the facts of the case, however, it simply said Rendon was not “treated any differently from any other soldier entering the unit;” the search “was conducted pursuant to a regularly scheduled intake protocol . . . [that] stayed with the parameters authorized by the commanding officer;” and “the detection of contraband [was] appropriately related to the good order and discipline of the unit.” (p. 991). The court never addressed why the protocol of reviewing personal electronic devices was necessary for good order and discipline, given that all electronic devices were seized from the Soldiers and locked up for the duration of their stay in the unit. It simply finds that the search was part of an inspection policy, and the policy was followed, so it was a lawful inspection.

(3) Once the first suspicious images were seen, there was “individualized suspicion” that clearly took any subsequent search out of M.R.E. 313(d). The court found the commanding officer’s verification search of the MP3 player was a required function of command. “Any other result would not respect the hierarchical nature of military society.” (p. 992).

Because the commanding officer authorized the inspection policy at play in this case, he had the right to examine anything found in an inspection conducted pursuant to the policy. The court also believed that the SNCO’s initial discovery of child pornography would have inevitably led to the discovery of the other child pornography.

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