When does a person's right to privacy end and the arm of the law begin? And what do trucks and hotel rooms have in common?

Judges with the Utah Court of Appeals are studying those issues in a child pornography case in which a briefcase packed with illegal photos landed a Utah man in prison for up to 10 years.

Former truck driver Romie Henry Miller claims police unlawfully seized a briefcase belonging to him after he accidentally left it in a semitrailer truck he was moving out of.

The case stems from an incident in September 2003 when Miller worked as a contract truck driver for C.R. England. Miller's lease on his truck had expired, and he was in the process of moving his personal belongings to a new truck that he had leased. Later the same day, police say a company employee pulled the old truck into a building and discovered a briefcase in the truck's sleeper compartment.

Finding the briefcase unlocked, the employee looked inside and found child pornography. The company then contacted West Valley police, who sent an officer to investigate. The officer reported that he opened the briefcase and saw dozens of indecent photos of minors.

The photos, an estimated 150, were eventually used as evidence against Miller, who was convicted by a jury on 10 counts of felony sexual exploitation of a minor and sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Miller's attorney, Stephen Spencer, argued before the Utah Court of Appeals Wednesday that the West Valley police officer had no right to search Miller's briefcase without a warrant because there was a reasonable expectation of privacy. By searching the briefcase, the officer found more child pornography than what C.R. England employees saw. Ultimately, that evidence was used to convict Miller, Spencer said.

Appellate Justice Pamela Greenwood said the officer may have looked at more photos than the employees did, but that still did not change the fact that child pornography was found.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Gray said the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly established that police may open containers where there is clearly no expectation of privacy. Gray said high courts have already established in cases when contraband has been found in hotel rooms, that while a room is being rented a patron has the expectation of privacy, but when that time has expired, police have a right to search any container deemed left behind or "abandoned."

"There is an expectation of privacy," Gray said. "Once that hotel guest checks out, they lose that expectation." Gray argued that there is little practical difference between a rented space in a hotel and a rented semi truck.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com