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The 9th Circuit’s Final Word on the BALCO Case

Case and Court

United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing (9th Cir. Sep. 13, 2010).

On August 26, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, issued an opinion in United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing. On December 18, 2009, the Court issued an order saying,

“The court is considering whether it should grant panel or full-court rehearing in this matter and will issue an order granting or denying rehearing in due course.”

The answer came in the form of a revised en banc opinion issued today accompanied by this order:

“The revised opinion filed concurrently herewith shall constitute the final action of the court. No petitions for rehearing will be considered.”

So this appears to be the Ninth Circuit’s final word on this case. A quick and dirty comparison of the 2009 opinion with today’s revision shows that largely the changes are as follows:

The majority opinion originally authored by Chief Judge Kozinski is now a “Per Curiam” opinion but virtually all of the text of that opinion that sought to give future guidance to magistrate judges on how to handle computer searches was moved (mostly unchanged) to the concurrence by Kozinski, joined by Kleinfeld, W. Fletcher, Paez, and M. Smith.

Here are the main passages removed from the majority opinion and placed into Kozinski’s concurrence:

Throughout, we take the opportunity to guide our district and magistrate judges in the proper administration of search warrants and grand jury subpoenas for electronically stored information, so as to strike a proper balance between the government’s legitimate interest in law enforcement and the people’s right to privacy and property in their papers and effects, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

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.

In addition, while it is perfectly appropriate for the warrant application to acquaint the issuing judicial officer with the theoretical risks of concealment and destruction of evidence, the government must also fairly disclose the actual degree of such risks in the case presented to the judicial officer. In this case, for example, the warrant application presented to Judge Johnson discussed the numerous theoretical risks that the data might be destroyed, but failed to mention that Comprehensive Drug Testing had agreed to keep the data intact until its motion to quash the subpoena could be ruled on by the Northern California district court, and that the United States Attorney’s Office had accepted this representation. This omission created the false impression that, unless the data was seized at once, it would be lost. Comprehensive Drug Testing, 513 F.3d at 1132 (Thomas, J., dissenting). Such pledges of data retention are obviously highly relevant in determining whether a warrant is needed at all and, if so, what its scope should be. If the government believes such pledges to be unreliable, it may say so and explain why. But omitting such highly relevant information altogether is inconsistent with the government’s duty of candor in presenting a warrant application. A lack of candor in this or any other aspect of the warrant application shall bear heavily against the government in the calculus of any subsequent motion to return or suppress the seized data.

Finally, the process of sorting, segregating, decoding and otherwise separating seizable data (as defined by the warrant) from all other data must be designed to achieve that purpose and that purpose only. Thus, if the government is allowed to seize information pertaining to ten names, the search protocol must be designed to discover data pertaining to those names only, not to others, and not those pertaining to other illegality. For example, the government has sophisticated hashing tools at its disposal that allow the identification of well-known illegal files (such as child pornography) without actually opening the files themselves. These and similar search tools may not be used without specific authorization in the warrant, and such permission may only be given if there is probable cause to believe that such files can be found on the electronic medium to be seized.

To guard against such unlawful conduct in the future, the warrant application should normally include, or the issuing judicial officer should insert, a protocol for preventing agents involved in the investigation from examining or retaining any data other than that for which probable cause is shown. The procedure might involve, as in this case, a requirement that the segregation be done by specially trained computer personnel who are not involved in the investigation. It should be made clear that only those personnel may examine and segregate the data. The government must also agree that such computer personnel will not communicate any information they learn during the segregation process absent further approval of the court.

At the discretion of the issuing judicial officer, and depending on the nature and sensitivity of the privacy interests involved, the computer personnel in question may be government employees or independent third parties not affiliated with the government. The issuing judicial officer may appoint an independent expert or special master to conduct or supervise the segregation and redaction of the data. In a case such as this one, where the party subject to the warrant is not suspected of any crime, and where the privacy interests of numerous other parties who are not under suspicion of criminal wrongdoing are implicated by the search, the presumption should be that the segregation of the data will be conducted by, or under the close supervision of, an independent third party selected by the court.

Once the data has been segregated (and, if necessary, redacted), the government agents involved in the investigation may examine only the information covered by the terms of the warrant. Absent further judicial authorization, any remaining copies must be destroyed or, at least so long as they may be lawfully possessed by the party from whom they were seized, returned along with the actual physical medium that may have been seized (such as a hard drive or computer). The government may not retain copies of such returned data, unless it obtains specific judicial authorization to do so. Also, within a time specified in the warrant, which should be as soon as practicable, the government must provide the issuing officer with a return disclosing precisely what data it has obtained as a consequence of the search, and what data it has returned to the party from whom it was seized. The return must include a sworn certificate that the government has destroyed or returned all copies of data that it is not entitled to keep. If the government believes it is entitled to retain data as to which no probable cause was shown in the original warrant, it may seek a new warrant or justify the warrantless seizure by some means other than plain view.

Instead of

“We believe it is useful, therefore, to update Tamura to apply to the daunting realities of electronic searches which will nearly always present the kind of situation that Tamura believed would be rare and exceptional—the inability of government agents to segregate seizable from non-seizable materials at the scene of the search, and thus the necessity to seize far more than is actually authorized.”

The new opinion just says,

“We have updated Tamura to apply to the daunting realities of electronic searches.”

In general, we adopt Tamura’s solution to the problem of necessary over-seizing of evidence: When the government wishes to obtain a warrant to examine a computer hard drive or electronic storage medium in searching for certain incriminating files, or when a search for evidence could result in the seizure of a computer, see, e.g., United States v. Giberson, 527 F.3d 882 (9th Cir. 2008), magistrate judges must be vigilant in observing the guidance we have set out throughout our opinion, which can be summed up as follows:

1. Magistrates should insist that the government waive reliance upon the plain view doctrine in digital evidence cases. See p. 11876 supra.

2. Segregation and redaction must be either done by spe cialized personnel or an independent third party. See pp. 11880-81 supra. If the segregation is to be done by government computer personnel, it must agree in the warrant application that the computer personnel will not disclose to the investigators any information other than that which is the target of the warrant.

3. Warrants and subpoenas must disclose the actual risks of destruction of information as well as prior efforts to seize that information in other judicial for a. See pp. 11877-78, 11886-87 supra.

4. The government’s search protocol must be designed to uncover only the information for which it has probable cause, and only that information may be examined by the case agents. See pp. 11878, 11880-81 supra.

5. The government must destroy or, if the recipient may lawfully possess it, return non-responsive data, keeping the issuing magistrate informed about when it has done so and what it has kept. See p. 11881-82 supra.

Just as Tamura has served as a guidepost for decades, we trust that the procedures we have outlined above will prove a useful tool for the future. In the end, however, we must rely on the good sense and vigilance of our magistrate judges, who are in the front line of preserving the constitutional freedoms of our citizens while assisting the government in its legitimate efforts to prosecute criminal activity.

With all these sections moved to Kozinski’s concurrence, Judge Callahan notes, “The concurrence is not joined by a majority of the en banc panel and accordingly the suggested guidelines are not Ninth Circuit law.”

See Also:

Categories: Fourth Amendment, Online Privacy.

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