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GeneralFourthAmendmentChallenges(SearchandSeizure)withComputers

SupposethepolicesuspectWinstonofpossessingchildpornographyonhiscomputer.Actingon
thatsuspicion,authoritiessecureawarranttoseizeandsearchWinstonscomputerandallotherdigital
storagemediumsathisresidence.However,whencombingthroughthefilesstoredonWinstonsdevices,
thepolicefindnotraceoftheillicitimages.
Toensurethatthesearchisthorough,lawenforcementofficersbegintoopenseparateprograms
installedonthemachine,searchingfordocumentshiddenwithintheapplications.Oneprogramtheyopen
isMicrosoftsOneDrive,1whichprovidesalistoffilesthatarestoredinWinstonscloudstorageaccount.
Thefiles,however,arenotactuallypresentonhiscomputersharddrive,oronanyotherstoragemedium
hepossesses.Thepolicedothisdespitethefactthattheirwarrantspecifiesonlytheirrighttosearchthe
contentsofWinstonsphysicaldrive.Regardless,theycanseethefilesavailablefordownloadandthey
seizethemanyway.Later,whencheckingthedownloadeddata,thepolicedonotfindanyevidenceofchild
pornography,buttheydofinddocumentsincriminatingWinstonofanothercrime.Asitturnsout,Winston
doesnottrafficchildporn,buthewasinfactcommittingbankfraud.
This seemingly small exploration might appear innocuous on its face, but it carries broad
implicationsforsearchandseizurelawinadigitalenvironment.Thewarrantgavethepolicelicenseto
searchfilesonWinstonscomputerandthestoragemediaheowned,butinthisinstancetheydidnotfind
incriminating data there. Instead, the police discovered evidence ona remote platform that Winstons
computercouldaccess,buttheevidencewasnotstoredonhisactualcomputer.
Companiesprovidingpubliccloudstoragemaintainuserdataonclustersofnetworkedserversat
offsitelocations.Userscanuploaddatatocloudserversinvariousways,includingplacingfilesinafolder
thatsynchronizeswiththestorageservice,accessingtheaccountdirectlyfromanInternetbrowser,or
doingsothroughcloudlinkedsoftwareinstalledonacomputer.Generally,cloudaccountspermitusersto
access their data from any Internetcapable device that has a web browser or cloudlinked software.
Winstonscomputerhostedcloudlinkedsoftware.Thefilesthepolicecollectedviathatprogramwerenot
onhisharddrive,andthewarrantonlyspecifiedfilesthatwereactuallyonhismachine.Thequestion
becomeswhethertheexistenceofsoftwareontheharddrivewithdirectaccesstooutsidefilespermitsthe
policetobroadentheirsearch.
Courtsnowconsistentlyrecognizethatpeoplepossessareasonableexpectationofprivacyintheir
computers.Thus,searchingonewithoutitsownersconsentrequiresawarrantoravalidexceptiontothe
warrantrequirement.
ProfessorOrinKerrlikensthecomputerharddrivetoanyothervarietyofsealedcontainerin
which individuals would retain a privacy right. Yet, he acknowledges inherent Fourth Amendment
problemsthatarisewhensearchingacomputerharddrive.Itisdifficulttodescribewithparticularitythe
placetosearchgiventhevastsizeofaharddriveandtheinnumerableplacestheownermighthidedata.
Furthermore,courtsstrugglewiththefactthatthereiscurrentlynowaytoknowwithcertaintythetype
of dataa file contains without examining the contentsclosely.One tempting approach is tolimit a
computersearchtocertaintypesoffilesfilesspecificallydesignedtocontaindatathatmightbeusedas
evidence of the pertinent crime. That method would indeed accord with the spirit of the Fourth
Amendmentscommandofparticularityforitswarrants,andsomecourtshavetriedtotakethisapproach
whenissuingwarrants.
Ultimately,however,suchlimitationsmightnotbefeasiblegiventherealitiesofdigitalstorage.
Usersoftenemployfiletypesincluding.jpegforimages,.aviforvideo,.docxfortextdocumentsin
Microsoft Word, and countless other types for countless other purposes. It would be quite simple to
segregateasearchbyfiletypedependingonthefocusofthesearch,butthatmorethanlikelywouldbea
fruitlessexercise.Bychangingafewlettersinafilesname,onecanmakeoneformofdataappeartobe
another.Suchachangewouldmakeadirectedsearchforspecificfiletypesineffectiveandrequireamuch
morethoroughexaminationinordertodeterminewhatacomputerfilestores.Additionally,thereisnothing
stoppingsomeoneengagedinbankfraudfromtakingpicturesoftheirdocumentsandstoringthemas
actualimages,asopposedtochangingafiletype.Thesameistrueforsomeoneseekingtohideillicit
images in a word processing document. The difficulty in searching computer files leads to tricky
applicationsoftheplainviewdoctrine,arecognizedexceptiontothewarrantrequirement.Inordertoapply

thatexception,theincriminatingcharacterofapieceofevidencemustbereadilyapparent,amongother
things.Asmentioned,thisisnotalwaysthecasewithacomputerfile.
TheSecondCircuit dealt withsomeofthesecomputersearchdifficultiesin UnitedStatesv.
Galpin.Inthatcase,thepolicesearchedaconvictedsexoffenderscomputerforviolatingaregistration
requirementforanonlinescreenname.Whileconductingthesearch,investigatorsopenedvarioustypesof
files, including images and video, and inadvertently found depictions of child pornography. When
remandingthecasetothedistrictcourt,theSecondCircuitwarnedofaneedforheightenedsensitivityto
warrantparticularityduringcomputersearches.Itcalleduponthefactfindertodeterminewhetherasearch
forregistrationviolationstrulynecessitatedopeningvideofiles.
TheSecondCircuitsattempttoconstrainabroadinterpretationoftheplainviewdoctrinedoes
notaddresstheaforementionedissues.Itfailstoaccountforthefactthatfileextensionsmightbechanged,
orforcontenthiddeninfilesthatisdifferentfromtheirnaturalformat.Moreover,astheopinionadmits,
authoritiesstillhavenowaytotellwhatisinsideafilewithoutcloseexamination.Thiscombinationof
issuesunderscorestheproblemwithusingaccesstoindividualcomputersaspermissiontosearchdata
storedonthecloud.Iflawenforcementobtainsawarranttosearchawholecomputerforincriminating
evidence,thegovernmentmayclaimthatthecontentsofeveryfileitchosetoopenwereinplainview.
TheremayindeedbefilesstoredsimilarlytoWinstons:namely,thattheyexistonserversthatconnectto
localcomputersviatheInternet,butwithnocopiesstoredontheactualmachine.Despitethis,programs
installedonhiscomputercoulddetectthosefilesanddownloadthemdirectly,withouthavingtoaccess
externalwebsitesthroughawebbrowser.Ifallfilesonacomputerareinplainview,thenpoliceseemingly
haveacarteblanchetosearchinformationaccessiblethroughprogramsinstalledontheharddrive.This
wouldincludecloudaccountslinkedtolocalsoftware.
Reference:http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3608&context=wmlr