Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Court case regarding evidence on computers

Here's an interesting court decision that came down recently: investigators who are searching a computer under a search warrant may not seize files that provide evidence of a different crime than the warrant provided for.

It's another example of established law running into confusion when it encounters new technology. Search warrants are made out for specific purposes, so if the police come to search for evidence of one crime, they can't seize on evidence of a different crime - unless the evidence of that other crime is in "plain view." Its a fuzzy standard, but the purpose is clear enough - if the searchers happen to see a corpse in the hall or drugs on the coffee table, they're not obliged to ignore them; but they aren't supposed to use the warrant as a pretext for a fishing expedition to see if they can find something, anything, to charge a person with, either.

So the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has slapped down an attempt to claim that every file on a computer is in "plain view" when it is being searched. Otherwise, any computer search would automatically acquire unlimited scope, regardless of the warrant. That seems like a reasonable application of the law. However, the article hints that the Justice Department might consider appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court, which might be deferential to police claims that constitutional rights interfere with their jobs. So maybe nothing has been settled yet.

(via the Archives listserv)

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