Thursday, August 27, 2009

Judge Kozinski champions right to privacy in computers

The Fourth Amendment is not dead... at least in the Ninth Circuit. Judge Alex Kozinksi,* writing for an en banc Ninth Circuit, ruled that many additional safeguards must be put in place before a computer search can go forward. See United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing. Here's the summary of the holding by Kozinski:

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 specialized 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 fora. 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.

My former law-school classmate, Professor Orin Kerr, has been railing on the decision over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Professor Kerr calls the opinion "breathtaking"** and says that it is light on citations to authority. He goes so far as to say: "This is the most free-wheeling, 'look ma no hands' legal decision I've read in a long time."

I think Kerr has got it all wrong here and that the en banc 9th Circuit has got it right. Computer searches are inherently different than any other type of search. And by the very nature of the search, a search warrant for any type of digital information -- no matter how discreet -- will lead to a search of the entire computer. Nowadays, there is nothing more private than a computer, not even your home. The old 4th Amendment analysis plainly hasn't been working with searching computers. And finally, one court had the courage to say so.

I know this isn't Scalia-Dershowitz, but I challenge my old friend Orin to a debate on whether this case was correctly decided. We can do it in blog posts or email or whatever. I hope he accepts. My first question to the good professor is whether he would agree that computer searches are inherently different than any other kind of search.

*Isn't it interesting that Kozinski wrote this opinion. Remember that he's the guy who had the contents of his computer publicly disclosed.

**Interestingly, the same word was used to describe the government's position: "Judge Thomas, too, in his panel dissent, expressed frustration withthe government’s conduct and position, calling it a 'breath-taking expansion of the ‘plain view’ doctrine, which clearly has no application to intermingled private electronic data.' Comprehensive Drug Testing, 513 F.3d at 1117."


Anonymous said...

Kozinski is very tech-savy as is his older son, they were the ones who set up their family-only website containing pronographic (or at least inappropriate images). Interstingly, Eugene Volohk (of conspiracy fame) was a Kozinski clerk, is a UCLA law prof., a genius and made a small fortune while in his 20's in a high-tech venture. Interesting cae, when you tap into a hard drive, even with a warrant, are you entering a large warehouse where everything is in plain sight or are you entering a self-storage center where you need independent probable cause as to each storage unit?

Allen said...

The government must destroy or, if the recipient may lawfully possess it, return non-responsive data

That statement gives me a bit of pause (not sure of the meaning of it). If someone has their computer encrypted, and they can't break the encryption, would that data be considered non-responsive and therefore destroyed?

At the very least, the law needs to acknowledge the issue of computer searches as they are definitely something that is not contained in the law as it is currently written