Legal questions raised over FBI informant working for Best Buy's Geek Squad

Lawyers continue to battle it out, trying to answer the question of whether Best Buy's Geek Squad and the FBI were involved too closely with each other in a case involving the eventual discovery of thousands of alleged child pornography images.

The California child pornography case raises the legal question: what is the difference between the government searching a computer and a business employee searching it — when the employee is also a paid government informant? The answer affects whether police needed a warrant.

A California doctor brought his computer to a Best Buy because it wouldn’t boot. Geek Squad told him his computer needed data recovery services. He agreed, and the computer was sent to a facility in Kentucky where a technician discovered possible child pornography and reported it to his supervisor. The supervisor told the FBI. The customer was eventually arrested and indicted.

However, it turns out the supervisor who reported the images to the FBI was also a paid FBI informant, once receiving $500. New documents also say that four supervisors at the facility were paid once or twice by the FBI, with eight total informants working there.

The customer’s attorneys argue the discovery of the images was really an illegal search by the government, meaning the evidence should be tossed out.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches” by the government. Normally, the government satisfies this amendment by getting a warrant for the search. In this Best Buy case, there was no warrant.

“The facility was permeated by FBI informants in strategic positions to report on such things,” defense attorneys wrote in a legal brief.

However, prosecutors say, while the payments “muddied the waters,” the money “did nothing to turn Geek Squad City supervisors into government agents.” Prosecutors say the Geek Squad technician who found the questionable images had to go through images as part of the data recovery process.

A spokesman for Best Buy tells Fox 9 the company policy forbids employees from intentionally searching for child pornography on customers’ devices. However, if an employee unintentionally finds child pornography, then the company does report the images to law enforcement. According to Best Buy, Geek Squad employees discover possible child porn nearly 100 times each year.

“We have a moral and, in more than 20 states, a legal obligation to report these findings to law enforcement," a Best Buy spokesperson wrote. "We share this policy with our customers in writing before we begin any repair.” 

The Best Buy spokesperson added that any decision by an employee to accept payment by the FBI was in “very poor judgment, and inconsistent with our training and policies.” Three of those employees no longer work for Best Buy and a fourth was disciplined.

In addition to raising important legal questions, the disagreement also affects the criminal case. After the discovery of possible child pornography on the computer police got a search warrant for the customer’s house, where they say possible child pornography was found. Any decision on the computer search would affect the admissibility of evidence found at the house.