What does it mean to “possess” an image file?

In a case of first impression under Virginia law, the Virginia Court of Appeals has applied “familiar principles of constructive possession of contraband” to define “possession” in the context of computer files.

In the case of Kromer v. Commonwealth, the appellant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence put forward to convict him of unlawful possession of child pornography. Specifically, the appellant argued that the Commonwealth failed to prove that he knowingly possessed the illegal images contained on the hard drive of his computer. The Court of Appeals rejected the appellant’s arguments and affirmed the conviction.

The appellant had contended that the images were “hidden” on his computer, and that someone else could have downloaded them from the Internet. However, the court tipped its hat to the federal case of U.S. v. Tucker, 305 F.3d 1193 (10th Cir. 2002) to conclude that whether the appellant or someone else sought after the images was not relevant to the analysis. Instead, the relevant inquiry was whether the appellant knowingly possessed the images after they were downloaded.

In holding that there was sufficient evidence to show that the appellant had knowingly possessed the images, the court applied a “constructive possession of contraband” analysis. Under the “totality of the circumstances,” the trial court was correct in determining that the appellant knowingly possessed the illegal images.

To support a conviction based on constructive possession under Virginia law, the Commonwealth had to show (1) that the appellant was aware of the presence and character of the illegal images and (2) that the illegal images were subject to his dominion and control.

The appellant had stored the images in a KaZaA directory which was linked to a desktop shortcut. This provided sufficient evidence to show he was aware of the presence of the files. Furthermore, the descriptive file names would have put him on notice of the character of the images. Regarding the question of whether the appellant had control of the images, the court observed that the appellant had disallowed sharing of the contents of the KaZaA folder in which the images had been stored. Moreover, the copy of Windows XP on the computer was registered in the appellant’s name, and he had provided consent for the F.B.I. to search his residence and computer.

Kromer v. Commonwealth, — S.E.2d —, 2005 WL 1388056 (Va.App., June 14, 2005).