Computer Searches and Plain View

Computers and electronic storage media can hold massive quantities of data. At approximately 30,000 pages per gigabyte, a low-end laptop computer with a 250 gigabyte hard drive can store the equivalent of more than 7 million pages of paper. That’s thousands of bankers’ boxes worth, or as many pages as you’d find at a branch library with 30,000 books.

When a law enforcement officer searches a computer, whether under a search warrant or a warrant exception, the officer typically searches the entire computer. At one level, this makes perfect sense, because although the officer may be looking for, say, evidence of tax evasion, the officer can’t trust file names and file extensions: critical evidence of unreported income won’t necessarily be saved under the name “secrettransaction.doc.” It might be instead be stored under the name “cookierecipe.doc” or “familyphoto.jpg.”

At another level, though, this means that computer searches can be incredibly extensive, in a way that arguably runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement, or at least risks rendering the Fourth Amendment impotent when it comes to protecting privacy. This is especially so because, when the officer finds child pornography on the computer — in addition to or instead of evidence of tax evasion — the prosecution is likely to argue that the images were in “plain view” and therefore admissible.

As Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit put it recently, “[t]he pressing need of law enforcement for broad authorization to examine electronic records . . . creates a serious risk that every warrant for electronic information will become, in effect, a general warrant, rendering the Fourth Amendment irrelevant.” United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2009 WL 2605378 (9th Cir. Aug. 26, 2009) (en banc).

Courts don’t agree on how serious this problem is. Some see it as a critical concern, others believe that computer searches are not dramatically more extensive or intrusive than, for example, a search of the paper records maintained by a large business. Further, courts and commentators who belive that this is a serious issue don’t agree on how to address it. Some suggest limiting the plain view doctrine in the context of computer searches; others suggest requiring officers to use a computer search protocol designed to find only evidence of the type for which the search is authorized. The most detailed treatment of the issue is in Comprehensive Drug Testing, a BNA summary and analysis of which is available here. The nutshell version is that the Ninth Circuit now requires (1) the government to waive the plain view doctrine as a condition of obtaining a computer search warranty, (2) the government to use a “search protocol . . . designed to uncover only the information for which it has probable cause,” and (3) the government to conduct computer searches using “specialized personnel or an independent third party,” not the case agents.)

Before you say, oh, that’s just the nutty Ninth Circuit, remember that Chief Judge Kozinski is a Reagan appointee and one of the most influential conservatives on the federal bench. Still, the opinion puts the Ninth Circuit alone in uncharted territory — whether it is leading the way or simply getting lost remains to be seen. North Carolina’s appellate courts haven’t weighed in on this issue yet, but I’d appreciate it if readers would weigh in — for example, by posting comments.