When police copy a computer’s hard drive to investigate one crime, can they hold that information indefinitely and search it for unrelated crimes? The Second Circuit Court of Appeals will decide when it rehears the U.S. vs Ganias case in late September. In 2014, the three-judge panel ruled that the government violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Stavros Ganias, who was convicted of tax evasion based partly on evidence the government obtained from a copy of his computer’s hard drive, which had been seized over two years prior in a separate investigation of one of his clients. The Ganias decision has broad implications for the application of the Fourth Amendment in the digital age.
The Fourth Amendment provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” and also provides that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Before the ubiquity of computers and other electronic devices, most courts saw “papers and effects” as tangible things that could be permissibly seized by a warrant. But because computer hard drives tend to store massive amounts of data, courts have permitted police officers executing search warrants to copy the information on a suspect’s hard drive rather than seize it outright. But in a world where our electronic devices contain vast amounts of personal and private data, should law enforcement have unlimited access and time to sift through seized hard drives until they find a crime? And what happens to that data after the initial investigation runs its course?
In the original Ganias ruling, two appellate judges held that the government’s retention of the computer records was unreasonable and they vacated Ganias’ conviction, citing the historical prohibition on general searches of a person’s papers. “Like 18th Century ‘papers,’ computer files may contain intimate details regarding an individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and lifestyle, and they should be similarly guarded against unwarranted government intrusion,” Judge Denny Chin wrote for the majority. “If anything, even greater protection is warranted.”
Notably, this case involves the seizure and retention of computer files that were beyond the scope of the initial warrant. The court did not address situations where files that are within the scope of the original warrant are held for an extended period, and end up being used in a separate case against the individual. The Fourth Amendment was designed to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure by an overzealous government. As technology continues to advance, so will our understanding of property, and our expectation of privacy from government searches. It is imperative that the courts recognize this shift and adapt Fourth Amendment protections for the digital age.