Skip to content

I See Code: Plain View and Computer Searches

The Ninth Circuit has taken a swat computer searches and the plain view doctrine (pdf). I have not yet read the entire opinion but Orin Kerr has a series of posts about the decision here. And Shaun Martin for whom I have a ton of respect as well, covers the case here. Shaun’s post captures how well-written the opinion is: “In my dreams I could write an opinion this good. It’s clear. It’s concise. It provides meaningful, systemic guidelines. It’s just. It’s got a keen sense of both the practical way the world works as well as the dangers inherent in certain conduct. In short, it’s exactly what I want in a wide-ranging opinion that makes meaningful precedent. … If you only read a dozen Ninth Circuit opinions this year, this should be amongst them.”

Dan and others will likely have more to say, so stay tuned, folks. As Orin notes, “This is really new territory, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I suspect we’ll find out soon, as there are a lot of these cases.” In the interim, here are three paragraphs worth reading:

The point of the Tamura procedures is to maintain the privacy of materials that are intermingled with seizable materials, and to avoid turning a limited search for particular information into a general search of office file systems and computer databases. If the government can’t be sure whether data may be concealed, compressed, erased or booby-trapped without carefully examining the contents of every file—and we have no cavil with this general proposition—then everything the government chooses to seize will, under this theory, automatically come into plain view. Since the government agents ultimately decide how much to actually take, this will create a powerful incentive for them to seize more rather than less: Why stop at the list of all baseball players when you can seize the entire Tracey Directory? Why just that directory and not the entire hard drive? Why just this computer and not the one in the next room and the next room after that? Can’t find the computer? Seize the Zip disks under the bed in the room where the computer once might have been. See United States v. Hill, 322 F. Supp. 2d 1081 (C.D. Cal. 2004). Let’s take everything back to the lab, have a good look around and see what we might stumble upon.

This would make a mockery of Tamura and render the carefully crafted safeguards in the Central District warrant a nullity. All three judges below rejected this construction, and with good reason. One phrase in the warrant cannot be read as eviscerating the other parts, which would be the result if the “otherwise legally seized” language were read to permit the government to keep anything one of its agents happened to see while performing a forensic analysis of a hard drive. The phrase is more plausibly construed as referring to any evidence that the government is entitled to retain entirely independent of this seizure.

To avoid this illogical result, the government should, in future warrant applications, forswear reliance on the plain view doctrine or any similar doctrine that would allow it to retain data to which it has gained access only because it was required to segregate seizable from non-seizable data. If the government doesn’t consent to such a waiver, the magistrate judge should order that the seizable and non-seizable data be separated by an independent third party under the supervision of the court, or deny the warrant altogether.