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Federal court case underscores warrant limitations

The constitutional amendments commonly known as the Bill of Rights are products of American history, being added to the nation’s chief governing document over time to address specific issues of great social and political importance.

The Fourth Amendment is a core example of that, being drafted to address concerns regarding authorities’ searches of citizens’ private papers and effects, both inside and outside their domiciles. A special concern was with the so-called “general warrant,” which investigators could use to conduct searches and seizures of evidence without probable cause to investigate specific criminal activity alleged to have occurred.

In response to that, the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant based on probable cause that sets forth with requisite specificity the evidence sought to be examined and potentially seized. The warrant requirement, incumbent upon criminal authorities in all but a few limited situations, is a bedrock principle in the realm of criminal defense.

Justifiably, courts vigorously enforce the amendment’s mandate when they view it as being violated by investigators, as was revealed recently in an appellate ruling issued by one of the nation’s federal circuit courts.

In that case, which has broad applicability in North Carolina and nationally, investigators seized computer evidence from an accountant. Although select computer files were not relevant to their case (that is, not responsive to the warrant secured), those files were never purged. In fact, they were simply held onto by examiners for a several-year period and then handed over to the IRS in another investigation.

The unpurged files turned out to be relevant in that subsequent matter, playing a central role in the accountant’s criminal conviction on tax evasion.

The appellate court vacated the conviction, citing disapproval of the government’s long-term retention of documents found to be non-responsive and its subsequent invitation to the IRS to join an after-the-fact investigation on another matter. The documents that were irrelevant in the initial case should have been purged and unavailable for scrutiny in the second examination years later.

A contrary result, noted the court, would enable the government to simply “seize and retain non-responsive electronic documents indefinitely,” using them later at its leisure when probable cause was developed in another matter.

The appellate tribunal ruled such conduct to be constitutionally impermissible as an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Feds’ data retention found ‘unreasonable,’” Adam Klasfeld, June 20, 2014

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