Finders Keepers? Debating a Warrant’s Scope

Finders Keepers? Debating a Warrant’s Scope

Should the government be allowed to retain and search copied computer files that were not covered by the original warrant? This is the central question within United States v. Ganias, which was brought before a federal appeals court this fall.

As part of its investigation into possible overbilling, the Army obtained a search warrant for the office of accountant Stavros Ganias. Though the government was investigating a client of Mr. Ganias, more than two-and-a-half years later, it had discovered new evidence within those files it still possessed that indicated possible tax evasion by Mr. Ganias. The government then asked the court for a new search warrant related to the examination of those files it had — files that Mr. Ganias had since deleted from his computer. With this evidence, the government prosecuted Mr. Ganias for tax evasion, and he was found guilty. Upon appeal to the Second Circuit, which found that Mr. Ganias’ Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, his conviction was vacated. The Second Circuit decided to rehear this case en banc this fall, however.

Per Ars Technica, Mr. Ganias’ lawyers have argued that once the government obtained the information it needed on Mr. Ganias’ client, it should have destroyed the files. Nonsense, the government countered, stating if it did that, it could be accused of “destroying exculpatory evidence” and retention “allows the government to conduct reasonable searches of the images — for material responsive to the warrant — as the case evolves.”

Per the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which filed an amicus brief, while courts have understood the need to “over-seize electronic data and later review for relevant information off-site” given digital data’s volume and complexity, however, the “Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search and seizures places into question the subsequent retention and searches of information not covered by the original warrant.”

Ars summarizes this matter as being a “big deal in today’s digital age,” as many of us keep many, if not all, our personal files on the computer.

What do you think? We welcome your opinions on digital data searches and whether non-pertinent data should be deleted post-search.

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