Federal Guidelines for
Searching and Seizing Computers
Obtained, Formatted, and Hyperlinked by
Computer Expert and Digital Forensics Consultant
Background Material on the Contents
This document was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Electronic Privacy Information Center in November 1994 and scanned in by the Bureau of National Affairs. It is not copyrighted and may be freely distributed.
A analysis of this document is available from EPIC at cpsr.org /cpsr/privacy/epic/guidelines_analysis.txt. EPIC,
with the cooperation of the Bureau of National Affairs, is making the guidelines available electronically. The
document is available via FTP/Gopher/WAIS/listserv from the EPIC online archive at cpsr.org
/cpsr/privacy/epic/fed_computer_seizure_guidelines.txt. A printed version appears in the Bureau of National Affairs publication, Criminal Law Reporter, Vol. 56, No. 12 (December 21 1994).
US Department of Justice
Office of Professional Development and Training
N.B. I am not a lawyer; I am a computer expert. So --- caveat emptor --- I guarantee nothing on these pages. I think they are very valuable and highly educational, but you assume any and all risks by using or relying on anything you find here. The page references noted below have been retained from the original document, for your convenience in any legal reference. Naturally, page numbers in this hyperlinked document may be different when printed out on your computer printer..........Judd Robbins
These Guidelines are the product of an interagency group, informally
called the Computer Search and Seizure Working Group. Its members were
lawyers, agents, and technical experts from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation; the United States Secret Service; the Internal Revenue
Service; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the United States Customs
Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the United States
Air Force; the Department of Justice; and United States Attorneys'
offices. Most of us have consulted widely within our own agencies to find
the diversity of opinion on these topics. Our object was to offer some
systematic guidance to all federal agents and attorneys as they wrestle
with cases in this emerging area of the law. These Guidelines have not
been officially adopted by any of the agencies, and are intended only as
assistance, not as authority. They have no regulatory effect, and confer
no right or remedy on anyone. Moreover, the facts of any particular case
may require you to deviate from the methods we generally recommend, or
may even demand that you try a completely new approach.
Many of our recommendations must be tentative, because there is often so
little law directly on point. As the law develops and as technology
changes (thereby altering or even transforming our assumptions), the
Working Group may well find itself a Standing Committee with open
If you have any comments, corrections, or contributions, please contact
Marty Stansell-Gamm at the Computer Crime Unit, General Litigation
Section, Department of Justice (202-514-1026). As you confront these
issues in your practice, we will be eager to hear about your experience
and to assist in any way we can.
Scott C. Charney, Chief, Computer Crime Unit
Martha J. Stansell-Gamm
Computer Crime Unit
Chair, Computer Search and Seizure Working Group
General Litigation and Legal Advice Section Criminal Division Department of Justice
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A. DEFINITIONS ................................................ 3
B. LIST OF COMPUTER SYSTEM COMPONENTS ......................... 5
C. DETERMINING THE COMPUTER'S ROLE IN THE OFFENSE ............. 7
A. SEARCH WARRANTS ............................................ 9
B. PLAIN VIEW ................................................. 9
C. EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES ...................................... 9
D. BORDER SEARCHES ............................................ 12
E. CONSENT SEARCHES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
1. Scope of the Consent .................................... 13
2. Third-Party Consent ......................................14
a. General Rules ........................................ 14
b. Spouses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
c. Parents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
d. Employers .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . . .. . . . .. . 18
e. Networks: System Administrators ...................... 22
F. INFORMANTS AND UNDERCOVER AGENTS ........................... 24
A. THE INDEPENDENT COMPONENT DOCTRINE ......................... 25
B. HARDWARE AS CONTRABAND OR FRUITS OF CRIME .................. 26
1. Authority for Seizing Contraband or Fruits of Crime ..... 26
2. Contraband and Fruits of Crime Defined .................. 27
C. HARDWARE AS AN INSTRUMENTALITY OF THE OFFENSE .............. 28
1. Authority for Seizing Instrumentalities ................. 28
2. Instrumentalities Defined ............................... 28
D. HARDWARE AS EVIDENCE OF AN OFFENSE ......................... 30
1. Authority for Seizing Evidence .......................... 30
2. Evidence Defined ........................................ 30
E. TRANSPORTING HARDWARE FROM THE SCENE ....................... 31
A. INTRODUCTION ............................................... 35
B. INFORMATION AS CONTRABAND .................................. 36
C. INFORMATION AS AN INSTRUMENTALITY .......................... 36
D. INFORMATION AS EVIDENCE .................................... 37
1. Evidence of Identity .................................... 38
2. Specific Types of Evidence .............................. 39
a. Hard Copy Printouts .................................. 39
b. Handwritten Notes .................................... 40
E. PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION ........... .. . . . 40
1. In General .............................................. 40
a. Doctors, Lawyers, and Clergy ......................... 41
b. Publishers and Authors ............................... 41
2. Targets ................................................. 42
3. Using Special Masters ................................... 43
F. UNDERSTANDING WHERE THE EVIDENCE MIGHT BE:
STAND-ALONE PCs, NETWORKS AND FILE-SERVERS, BACKUPS,
ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARDS, AND ELECTRONIC MAIL................................ 43
1. Stand-Alone PCs......................................... 43
a. Input/Output Devices: Do Monitors, Modems, Printers, and
Keyboards Ever Need to be Searched? ............................ 44
b. Routine Data Backups.................................. 46
2. Networked PCs........................................... 46
a. Routine Backups ..................................... 48
b. Disaster Backups..................................... 49
G. SEARCHING FOR INFORMATION .................................. 49
1. Business Records and Other Documents .................... 49
2. Data Created or Maintained by Targets ................... 50
3. Limited Data Searches ................................... 51
4. Discovering the Unexpected .............................. 53
a. Items Different from the Description in the Warrant .. 53
b. Encryption ........................................... 54
H. DECIDING WHETHER TO CONDUCT THE SEARCH ON-SITE
OR TO REMOVE HARDWARE TO ANOTHER LOCATION ........................ 55
1. Seizing Computers because of the Volume of Evidence ..... 56
a. Broad Warrant Authorizes Voluminous Seizure of Documents
b. Warrant is Narrowly Drawn but Number of Documents to be
Sifted through is Enormous ........................... 58
c. Warrant Executed in the Home ......................... 59
d. Applying Existing Rules to Computers ................. 60
2. Seizing Computers because of Technical Concerns ........ 61
a. Conducting a Controlled Search to Avoid Destroying Data 61
b. Seizing Hardware and Documentation so the System Will Operate
at the Lab ................................................ 62
I. EXPERT ASSISTANCE .......................................... 63
1. Introduction ............................................ 63
2. Finding Experts ......................................... 64
a. Federal Sources....................................... 65
b. Private Experts....................................... 66
3. What the Experts Can Do ................................. 68
a. Search Planning and Execution ........................ 68
b. Electronic Analysis .................................. 68
c. Trial Preparation .................................... 69
d. Training for Field Agents ............................ 70
A. INTRODUCTION ..................................................... 71
B. THE PRIVACY PROTECTION ACT, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa ................72
1. A Brief History of the Privacy Protection Act .............72
2. Work Product Materials ....................................73
3. Documentary Materials .....................................77
4. Computer Searches and the Privacy Protection Act ..........78
a. The Reasonable Belief Standard .........................79
b. Similar Form of Public Communication ...................82
c. Unique Problems: Unknown Targets and Commingled Materials ...83
5. Approval of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Required ....84
C. STORED ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS ..................................85
A. DRAFTING A WARRANT TO SEIZE HARDWARE ............................. 91
B. DRAFTING A WARRANT TO SEIZE INFORMATION .......................... 92
1. Describing the Place to be Searched ........................... 92
a. General Rule: Obtain a Second Warrant ...................... 93
b. Handling Multiple Sites within the Same District ........... 93
c. Handling Multiple Sites in Different Districts ............. 94
d. Information at an Unknown Site ............................. 95
e. Information/Devices Which Have Been Moved .................. 96
2. Describing the Items to be Seized ............................. 97
3. Removing Hardware to Search Off-Site: Ask the Magistrate for
Explicit Permission..................................................... 99
4. Seeking Authority for a No-Knock Warrant ..................... 100
a. In General ................................................ 100
b. In Computer-Related Cases ................................. 101
A. INTRODUCTION .....................................................103
B. PROCEDURES FOR PRESERVING EVIDENCE ........................ 104
1. Chain of Custody ....................................... 104
2. Organization ........................................... 104
3. Keeping Records ........................................ 105
4. Returning Seized Computers and Materials ............... 105
a. Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure: Rule 41(e) ..... 106
b. Hardware ............................................ 109
c. Documentation ....................................... 110
d. Notes and Papers .................................... 110
e. Third-Party Owners .................................. 111
A. INTRODUCTION .............................................. 113
B. THE BEST EVIDENCE RULE .................................... 114
C. AUTHENTICATING ELECTRONIC DOCUMENTS ....................... 115
1. "Distinctive" Evidence ............................... 116
2. Chain of Custody ....................................... 119
3. Electronic Processing of Evidence ...................... 120
D. THE HEARSAY RULE .......................................... 122
APPENDIX A: SAMPLE COMPUTER LANGUAGE FOR SEARCH WARRANTS ...... 125
1. Tangible Objects .................................... 125
2. Information: Records, Documents, Data ............... 128
3. Stipulation for Returning Original Electronic Data .............. 135
APPENDIX B: GLOSSARY ............................................... 139
APPENDIX C: FEDERAL EXPERTS FOR COMPUTER CRIME INVESTIGATIONS....... 143
APPENDIX D: COMPUTER SEARCH AND SEIZURE WORKING GROUP ...............145
APPENDIX E: STATUTORY POPULAR NAME TABLE.............................153
APPENDIX F: TABLE OF AUTHORITIES .................................. 155
As computers and telecommunications explode into the next century,
prosecutors and agents have begun to confront new kinds of problems.
These Guidelines illustrate some of the ways in which searching a
computer is different from searching a desk, a file cabinet, or an
automobile. For example, when prosecutors must interpret Rule 41 (which
requires that the government obtain a search warrant in the district
where the property to be searched is "located"), applying it to searches
of physical items is usually uncomplicated. But when they must try to
"locate" electronic data, the discussion can quickly become more
metaphysical than physical.
Even so, it is important to remember throughout the process that as
dazzling and confounding as these new-age searches and seizures may be,
they are in many essential ways just like all other searches. The cause
must be just as probable; the description of items, just as particular.
The standard investigative techniques that work in other cases (like
finding witnesses and informants) are just as valuable in computer cases.
The evidence that seals a case may not be on the hardware or software,
but in an old-fashioned form: phone bills, notes in the margins of
manuals, or letters in a drawer.
The sections that follow are an integration of many legal sources,
practical experiences, and philosophical points of view. We have often
had to extrapolate from existing law or policies to try to strike old
balances in new areas. We have done our best to anticipate the questions
ahead from the data available today. Even so, we recognize that rapid
advances in computer and telecommunications technologies may require that
we revisit these Guidelines,~perhaps in the near future. In the meantime,
as law struggles to catch up to technology, it is important to remember
that computer cases are just like all others in one respect at least:
under all the "facts and circumstances," there is no substitute for
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I. KEY TERMS AND CONCEPTS
Searching and seizing computers raises unique issues for law enforcement
personnel. Before addressing these issues, however, it is important to
have a basic understanding of key terms and fundamental concepts that
will influence the government's search and seizure decisions. This
section describes these central terms and concepts. A more complete
glossary can be found at APPENDIX B, p. 139.
When people speak of searching or seizing computers, they usually are not
referring only to the CPU (Central Processing Unit). After all, a
computer is useless without the devices that allow for input (e.g., a
keyboard or mouse) and output (e.g., a monitor or printer) of
information. These devices, known as "peripherals,"' are an integral part
of any "computer system."
Failure to more specifically define the term "computer" may cause
misunderstandings. Having probable cause to seize a "computer" does not
necessarily mean there is probable cause to seize the attached printer.
Therefore, we need to be clear about our terms.
1. Hardware -- "The physical components or equipment that make up a
computer system...." Webster's Dictionary of Computer Terms 170 (3d ed.
1988). Examples include keyboards, monitors, and printers.
2. Software -- "The programs or instructions that tell a computer what to
do." Id. at 350. This includes system programs which control the internal
operation of the computer system (such as Microsoft's Disk Operating
System, "MS-DOS," that controls
1 Peripheral equipment means "[t]he input/output units and auxiliary
storage units of a computer system, attached by cables to the central
processing unit." Webster's Dictionary of Computer Terms 279 (3d ed.
IBM-compatible PCs) and applications programs which enable the computer
to produce useful work (e.g., a word processing program such as
3. Data -- "A formalized representation of facts or concepts suitable for
communication, interpretation, or processing by people or by automatic
means." Id. at 84. Data is often used to refer to the information stored
in the computer.
4. Documentation -- Documents that describe technical specifications of
hardware components and/or software applications and how to use them.
5. Input/Output (I/O) Device -- A piece of equipment which sends data to,
or receives data from, a computer. Keyboards, monitors, and printers are
all common I/O devices.
6. Network -- "A system of interconnected computer systems and
terminals." Id. at 253.
7. System Administrator (or System Operator, "sysop") -- The individual
responsible for assuring that the computer system is functioning
properly. He is often responsible for computer security as well.
For search and seizure purposes, unless the text specifically indicates
otherwise, the term "computer" refers to the box that houses the CPU,
along with any internal storage devices (such as internal hard drives)
and internal communications devices (such as an internal modem or fax
card). Thus, "computer" refers to the hardware, software, and data
contained in the main unit. Printers, external modems (attached by cable
to the main unit), monitors, and other external attachments will be
referred to collectively as "peripherals" and discussed individually
where appropriate. When we are referring to both the computer and all
attached peripherals as one huge package, we will use the term "computer
system." "Information" refers to all the information on a computer
system, including both software applications and data.
It is important to remember that computer systems can be configured in an
unlimited number of ways with assorted input and output devices. In some
cases, a specific device may have particular evidentiary value (e.g., if
the case involves
a bookie who prints betting slips, the printer may constitute
valuable evidence); in others, it may be the information stored in the
computer that may be important. In either event, the warrant must
describe, with particularity, what agents should search for and seize.
B. LIST OF COMPUTER SYSTEM COMPONENTS
The following is an abridged list of hardware components which may play a
role in a criminal offense and, therefore, be subject to search and
seizure under warrant. For a more extensive list, see the "GLOSSARY" at
APPENDIX B, p. 139. It is important to remember that electronic
components are constantly changing, both in nature and in number, and no
list can be comprehensive.
Device Name Description
CPU: The central processing unit.
Hard Disk Drive: A storage device based on a fixed, permanently
mounted disk drive. It may be either internal or external. Both
applications and data may be stored on the disk.
Floppy Disk Drive: A drive that reads from or writes to floppy
diskettes. Information is stored on the diskettes themselves, not on the
Mouse: A pointing device that controls input. Normally, the user points
to an object on the screen and then presses a button on the mouse to
indicate her selection.
Modem: A device allowing the computer to communicate with another
computer, normally over standard telephone lines. Modems may be either
external or internal.
Fax Peripheral: A device, normally inserted as an internal card,
that allows the computer to function as a fax machine.
CD ROM: CD ROM stands for Compact Disk Read-Only Memory. CD ROMs store
and read massive amounts of information on a removable disk platter.
Unlike hard drives and diskettes, CD ROMs are read-only and data cannot
be written to the platter.
Laser Disk: Similar to a CD ROM drive but uses lasers to read and
Scanner: Any optical device which can recognize characters on
paper and, using specialized software, convert them into digital form.
Printer: A number of technologies exist, using various techniques.
The most common printers are:
1. Dot matrix - characters and graphics are created by pins hitting the
ribbon and paper;
2. Laser - electrostatically charges the printed page and applies toner;
3. Ink jet - injects (sprays) ink onto the paper;
4. Thermal - a hot printer head contacts special paper that reacts to
5. Band - a rotating metal band is impacted as it spins;
6. Daisy wheel - a small print wheel containing the form of each
character rotates and hits the paper, character by character;
7. Plotter - moves ink pens over the paper surface, typically used for
large engineering and architectural drawings.
C. DETERMINING THE COMPUTER'S ROLE IN THE OFFENSE
Before preparing a warrant to seize all or part of a computer system and
the information it contains, it is critical to determine the computer's
role in the offense. First, the computer system may be a tool of the
offense. This occurs when the computer system is actively used by a
defendant to commit the offense. For example, a counterfeiter might use
his computer, scanner, and color printer to scan U.S. currency and then
print money. Second, the computer system may be incidental to the
offense, but a repository of evidence. For example, a drug dealer may
store records pertaining to customers, prices, and quantities delivered
on a personal computer, or a blackmailer may type and store threatening
letters in his computer.
In each case, the role of the computer differs. It may constitute "the
smoking gun" (i.e., be an instrumentality of the offense), or it may be
nothing more than an electronic filing cabinet (i.e., a storage device).
In some cases, the computer may serve both functions at once. Hackers,
for example, often use their computers both to attack other computer
systems and to store stolen files. In this case, the hacker's computer is
both a tool and storage device. Whatever the computer's role in each
case, prosecutors must consider this and tailor warrants accordingly.
By understanding the role that the computer has played in the offense, it
is possible to focus on certain key questions:
Is there probable cause to seize hardware?
Is there probable cause to seize software?
Is there probable cause to seize data?
Where will this search be conducted? Is it practical to search the
computer system on site, or must the examination be conducted at a field
office or laboratory?
If agents remove the system from the premises to conduct the search, must
they return the computer system, or copies of the seized data, to its
owner/user before trial?
Considering the incredible storage capacities of computers, how will
agents search this data in an efficient, timely manner?
Before addressing these questions, it is important to recognize that
general Fourth Amendment principles apply to computer searches, and
traditional law enforcement techniques may provide significant evidence
of criminal activity, even in computer crime cases. Therefore, we begin
with a brief overview of the Fourth Amendment.
A. SEARCH WARRANTS
There is, of course, "a strong preference for warrants," and courts will
scrutinize a warrantless search. Indeed, as the Supreme Court indicated
in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 914 (1984), a warrant can save a
search where probable cause is doubtful or marginal. Most searches of
computer systems will be pursuant to warrant, but the recognized
exceptions to the warrant requirement apply equally to the search and
seizure of computers.
B. PLAIN VIEW
Evidence of a crime may be seized without a warrant under the plain view
exception to the warrant requirement. To rely on this exception, the
officer must be in a lawful position to observe the evidence, and its
incriminating character must be immediately apparent. See Horton v.
California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990). For example, if agents with a warrant to
search a computer for evidence of narcotics trafficking find a long list
of access codes taped to the computer monitor, the list should also be
C. EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES
"When destruction of evidence is imminent, a warrantless seizure of that
evidence is justified if there is probable cause to believe that the item
seized constitutes evidence of criminal activity." United States v.
David. 756 F. Supp. 1385, 1392 (D. Nev. l991).2 If a target's screen is
-------------------------- 2 See also United States v. Talkington, 875
F.2d 591 (7th Cir. 1989) (warrantless entry to residence and seizure of
counterfeit money was justified since agents knew that (1) the suspects
had previously discussed burning money; (2) there was a fire in the
backyard: and (3) the agents were confident that residents were not
having a cookout.
which agents reasonably believe to be in danger, the "exigent
circumstances" doctrine would justify downloading the information before
obtaining a warrant. For example, agents may know that the incriminating
data is not actually stored on the suspect's machine, but is only
temporarily on line from a second network storage site in another
building, city, or district. Thus, even if the agents could secure the
target's computer in front of them, someone could still electronically
damage or destroy the data -- either from the second computer where it is
stored or from a third, unknown site. Of course, when agents know they
must search and seize data from two or more computers on a wide-area
network, they should, if possible, simultaneously execute separate search
warrants. (See "Describing the Place to be Searched," infra p. 92.) But
sometimes that is not possible, and agents must then analyze the
particular situation to decide whether the "exigent circumstances"
exception applies. In computer network cases, as in all others, the
answer is absolutely tied to the facts.
In determining whether exigent circumstances exist, agents should
consider: (1) the degree of urgency involved, (2) the amount of time
necessary to obtain a warrant, (3) whether the evidence is about to be
removed or destroyed, (4) the possibility of danger at the site, (5)
information indicating the possessors of the contraband know the police
are on their trail, and (6) the ready destructibility of the contraband.
United States v. Reed, 935 F.2d 641, 642 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 112 S.
Ct. 423 (1991).
Under the "exigent circumstances" exception to the warrant requirement,
agents can search without a warrant if the circumstances would cause a
reasonable person to believe it to be necessary. The Supreme Court has
upheld warrantless entries and searches when police officers reasonably
believe that someone inside needs "immediate aid," Mincey v. Arizona, 437
U.S. 385, 392~-93 (1978), or to prevent the destruction of relevant
evidence, the escape of a suspect, or the frustration of some other
legitimate law enforcement objective. United States v. Arias, 923 F.2d
1387 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 130 (1991). The officer's fears
need not be correct so long as they are reasonable. See United States v.
Reed, supra (proper inquiry is what objective officer could reasonably
Recognizing the strong preference for warrants, courts have suppressed
evidence where the officers had time to get a warrant but failed to do
so. United States v. Houle, 603 F.2d 1297 (8th Cir. 1979). Some courts
have even ruled that exigent circumstances did not exist if the law
enforcement officers had time to obtain a warrant by telephone. United
States v. Patino, 830 F.2d 1413, 1416 (7th Cir. 1987)(warrantless search
not justified when officer had adequate opportunity to obtain telephone
warrant during 30-minute wait for backup assistance; not permissible for
agents to wait for exigency and then exploit it), cert. denied, 490 U.S.
Additionally, while exigencies may justify the seizure of hardware (i.e.,
the storage device), this does not necessarily mean that they support a
warrantless search. In United States v. David, 756 F. Supp. 1385 (D. Nev.
1991), the court held that although the agent was correct to seize the
defendant's computer memo book without a warrant (because the agent saw
him deleting files), the agent should have gotten a search warrant before
re~accessing and searching the book. The court held the exigencies
allowed the agent to take the computer memo book but, once taken, there
was time to get a warrant to look inside. Therefore, the seized evidence
had to be suppressed. Id. at 1392.
This holding is, of course, analogous to cases which address other kinds
of containers. In the David case, the computer book itself was not
contraband, instrumentality, fruit, or evidence of crime. It was,
instead, a small file cabinet, a locked box, a container of data. The
agent was not interested in the hardware but in the information inside.
As the cases make clear, authority to seize a container does not
necessarily authorize a warrantless search of the container's contents.
See Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 750 (1983)(Stevens, J.,
concurring)(plain view justified seizure of party balloon but additional
justification was required to open balloon without warrant). Courts have
suppressed warrantless searches when the defendant still had a reasonable
expectation of privacy in the contents of the container. See United
States v. Turk, 526 F.2d 654 (5th Cir.)(although seizure of tape was
proper, playing taped conversation of private telephone communication was
not), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 823 (1976); Blair v. United States, 665 F.2d
500 (4th Cir. 1981).
Agents must always remember, however, that electronic data is perishable.
Humidity, temperature, vibrations, physical mutilation, magnetic fields
created by passing a strong magnet over a disk, or computer commands
(such as "erase *.*" or "format") can destroy data in a matter of
Thus, the exigent circumstances doctrine may justify a warrantless
seizure in appropriate cases.
D. BORDER SEARCHES
The law recognizes a limited exception to the Fourth Amendment's probable
cause requirement at the nation's borders. Officials may search people
and property without a warrant and without probable cause as a condition
of crossing the border or its "functional equivalent." United States v.
Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606 (1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1062 (1978). Both
incoming international baggage (United States v. Scheer, 600 F.2d 5 (3d
Cir. 1979) and incoming international mail at the border are subject to
search without a warrant to determine whether they contain items which
may not lawfully be brought into the country. Border searches or
international mail searches of diskettes, tapes, computer hard drives
(such as laptops carried by international travelers), or other media
should fall under the same rules which apply to incoming persons,
documents, and international mail.
On the other hand, the border search exception to the warrant requirement
probably will not apply to data transmitted electronically (or by other
non-physical methods) into the United States from other countries. For
example, if an individual in the United States downloads child
pornography from a foreign BBS, a warrantless search of his home computer
could not be supported by the border search exception. In such cases, it
is difficult to find a "border" or its functional equivalent as data
travels over international telephone lines or satellite links. What seems
clear, however, is that once data has been received by a computer within
the United States, that data resides in the country and has passed beyond
the border or its functional equivalent. Because the justification for
the border search exception is grounded on the sovereign's power to
exclude illegal articles from the country, that exception no longer
applies once such articles (in this case electronic data) have come into
the country undetected.
E. CONSENT SEARCHES
Agents may search a place or object without a warrant or, for that
matter, without probable cause, if a person with authority has consented.
Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973). This consent may be
explicit or implicit. United States v. Milan-Rodriguez, 759 F.2d 1558,
1563-64 (11th Cir.)(telling police where to find a key constitutes
implicit consent to a search of the locked area), cert. denied, 474 U.S.
845 (1985), and cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1054 (1988).
Whether consent was voluntarily given is a question of fact which the
court will decide. United States v. Scott, 578 F.2d 1186, 1189 (6th
Cir.), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 870 (1978). The burden is on the government
to prove that the consent was voluntary, United States v. Price, 599 F.2d
494, 503 (2nd Cir. 1979), and, in making its decision, the court will
consider all the facts surrounding the consent. Schneckloth, supra, at
226-7; United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 557-8 (1980). See
generally United States v. Caballos, 812 F.2d 42 (2d Cir. 1987). While no
single aspect controls the result, the Supreme Court has identified the
following important factors: the age of the person giving consent; the
person's education, intelligence, mental and physical condition; whether
the person was under arrest; and whether he had been advised of his right
to refuse consent. Schneckloth, supra, at 226.
In computer crime cases, several consent issues are likely to arise.
First, did the scope of the search exceed the consent given? For example,
what if a target consents to a search of his machine, but the data is
encrypted? Does his consent authorize breaking the encryption scheme?
Second, who is the proper party to consent to a search? Does a system
administrator have the authority to consent to a search of a file server
containing the files of all the system users?
1. Scope of the Consent
A person who consents to a search may explicitly limit this consent to a
certain area. United States v. Griffin, 530 F.2d 739, 744 (7th Cir.
1976). When the limits of the consent are clearly given, either at the
time of the search or even afterwards, agents must respect their bounds.
In Vaughn v. Baldwin,
950 F.2d 331 (6th Cir. 1991), the plaintiff dentist had voluntarily
turned over records to the IRS. The IRS agent kept the records for months
and refused several informal requests for their return. Plaintiff then
formally, in writing, revoked his consent to the IRS, which still kept
the records to make copies. Finally, plaintiff sued and the IRS returned
the originals but kept the copies. The court found that the IRS had
violated the Fourth Amendment. Although the IRS was entitled to copy the
records while they lawfully had them, they could not keep the records
once plaintiff revoked his consent. Moreover, considering the long period
of time that the IRS held the documents, the court rejected the argument
that once the plaintiff demanded return of his documents the government
should be entitled to retain them for a reasonable period for copying.
Consent may also be limited implicitly. In United States v. David, 756 F.
Supp. 1385 (D. Nev. 1991), the court held that while the defendant had
consented, pursuant to a cooperation agreement, to share some of the
information contained in his hand-held computer memo book, his attempt to
prevent agents from seeing the file password constituted a limit on his
consent. Although the agent did nothing wrong by leaning over defendant's
shoulder to watch him enter the password, the government clearly exceeded
the implicit limits of David's consent when agents used the password to
read the whole computer book without David's permission. For a more
extensive discussion of encryption issues, see, infra p. 54.
2. Third-Party Consent
a. General Rules
It is not uncommon for several people to use or own the target computer
equipment. If any one of those people gives permission to search for
data, agents may generally rely on that consent, so long as that person
has authority over the computer. In these cases, all users have assumed
the risk that a co~-user might not just discover everything in the
computer but might also permit law enforcement to discover the "common
area" as well.
In United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974), the Supreme Court
stated that one who has common authority over premises or effects may
consent to a search even if the absent co-user objects. In an important
footnote, the Court said that "common authority" is not a property law
concept but rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having
joint access or control for most purposes, so that it is reasonable to
recognize that any of the co-inhabitants has the right to permit the
inspection in his own right and that the others have assumed the risk
that one of their number might permit the common area to be searched.
Id. at 171 n.7.
Extending this analysis, a third party with common authority may consent
even if he is antagonistic toward the defendant. One could even argue
that sharing access to a common premises with an unsympathetic person
would objectively increase the risk of disclosure, and thus reasonable
expectations of privacy actually diminish. This is especially true where
the consenting individual agrees to a search of common premises to
exculpate himself from the defendant's criminal activity. See 3 W.
LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment 8.3(b) at
244-45 (2d ed. 1987). See also United States v. Long, 524 F.2d 660 (9th
Cir. 1975) (wife in fear of her husband could still consent to a search
of the jointly owned house even though she had moved out and he had
changed the locks).
Where two or more people enjoy equal property rights over a place, they
may still have exclusive, private zones within the shared premises.
Housemates with separate bedrooms, spouses with private areas or
containers, and housemates with separate directories on a shared computer
may reasonably expect to own that space alone. But when do these
individual expectations overcome another's common authority over premises
or property? Although there is no bright line test, courts will generally
regard a defendant's claims of exclusive control in this situation with
some skepticism. See Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731, 740 (1969).
Even so, courts may honor claims to privacy where the defendant has taken
some special steps to protect his personal effects from the scrutiny of
others, and others lack ready access. 3 W. LaFave, supra 8.3(f), at
259-60. In United States v. Block, 590 F.2d 535 (4th Cir. 1978), the
held that a mother's authority to permit police officers to inspect her
23-year-old son's room did not include his locked footlocker in the room.
The court stated that the authority to consent to search cannot be thought automatically to extend to the interiors of every
discrete enclosed space capable of search within the area.... Common
experience .... teaches all of us that the law's "enclosed spaces"--
mankind's valises, suitcases, footlockers, strong boxes, etc. -- are
frequently the objects of his highest privacy expectations, and that the
expectations may well be at their most intense when such effects are
deposited temporarily or kept semi-permanently in public places or in
places under the general control of another.
Id. at 541.
In a footnote, however, the Block court noted that not every "enclosed
space" within a room is exempt from the reach of the authorized search
area. A rule of reason applies, one that considers the circumstances
"indicating the presence or absence of a discrete expectation of privacy
with respect to a particular object: whether it is secured, whether it is
commonly used for preserving privacy, etc." Id. at n.8. Cf. United States
v. Sealey, 830 F.2d 1028, 1031 (9th Cir. 1987) (spousal consent valid
because sealed containers were not marked in any way that would indicate
defendant's sole ownership). Thus, creating a separate personal directory
on a computer may not sufficiently mark it as exclusive, but protecting
that separate directory with a secret password may "lock the container."
In that event, if law enforcement analysts search the directory by
breaking the password (because the co-user who consented to the search
did not know that password), a court would probably suppress the result.
Matlock did not address whether a consent search is valid when police
have reasonably, but mistakenly, relied upon the consent of someone who
appeared to have common authority over the premises, but in fact did not.
In Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177 (1990), however, the Supreme Court
held that a consent search is valid when police are reasonable in
thinking they have been given authorized consent. The Court cautioned,
however, that police cannot simply rely upon someone at the scene who
claims to have authority if the surrounding circumstances indicate
otherwise. If such authority is unclear, the police are obligated to ask
more questions. Determining who has power to consent is an objective
exercise, the Court stated, and the test is whether the
facts available to the police officer at the moment would warrant a
person of reasonable caution to believe that the consenting party had
authority over the premises. Id. at 2801.
Under the Matlock "common authority" approach, most spousal consent
searches are valid. Although spouses who create exclusive areas may
preclude their partners from consenting to a search, that circumstance
will be unusual. Indeed* spouses do not establish "exclusive use" just by
being the only one who uses the area; there must be a showing that the
consenting spouse was denied access. 3 W. LaFave, supra p. 11, 8.4(a),
at 278. In United States v. Duran, 957 F.2d 499, 504-5 (7th Cir. 1992),
for example, the defendant and his wife lived on a farm with several
outbuildings. The wife consented to the search of a building which she
believed defendant used as a private gym, but the police found marijuana
plants inside. The court emphasized the presumption that the entire
marital premises are jointly held and controlled by the partners, and
said this presumption can be overcome only by showing that the consenting
spouse was actually denied access to the area in question.
With spouses, as with roommates, the Rodriguez "reasonable belief" rule
(supra p. 16) allows investigating agents to draw reasonable conclusions,
based upon the situation they encounter, about who has authority to
consent. In the absence of objective evidence to the contrary, agents
will be reasonable in presuming that spouses have authority to consent to
a search of anything on the marital property. Illinois v. Rodriguez, supra.
In some recent computer crime cases the perpetrators have been relatively
young and, even if no longer legally minors, have resided with their
parents. Under the Matlock rationale, it is clear that parents may
consent to a search of common areas in the family home. Additionally,
with regard to minor children, the courts have found parents to hold
superior rights in the
home and "even rather extraordinary efforts by the child to establish
exclusive use may not be effective to undermine the parents' authority
over their home, including rooms occupied by the child." 3 W. LaFave,
supra p. 15, 8.4(b), at 283. Therefore, if parents consent to a search
and seizure of floppy disks or passwords locked in the minor child's
room, that consent should be upheld.
The issue becomes more complicated, however, when the sons and daughters
who reside with their parents are adults. In these situations, courts may
reach the opposite result when, as a practical matter, the adult child
has established an exclusive area in the home that the parents have
respected. Id. at 285. See discussion of United States v. Block, supra p.
Employers may be either public (i.e., government) or private. The
distinction is important because government employers, unlike private
employers, are bound by the Fourth Amendment. In construing the reach of
the Fourth Amendment into the workplace, the Supreme Court has held that
government employers may search employee offices, without either a
warrant or the consent of the employee, when the search is administrative
in nature; that is, it is work-related (e.g., the supervisor needs to
find a case file) or involves work-related misconduct. O'Connor v.
Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987).
The Court found that government employees can have a reasonable
expectation of privacy even though the physical area is owned by the
government. Id. at 717 (specifically rejecting a contention made by the
Solicitor General that public employees can never have a reasonable
expectation of privacy in their place of work). The realities of the
workplace, however, suggest that an employee's expectation of privacy
must be reduced to the degree that fellow employees, supervisors,
subordinates, guests, and even the general public may have access to that
individual's work space. Recognizing that government agencies could not
function properly if supervisors had to establish probable cause and
obtain a warrant whenever they needed to look for a file in an employee's
office, the Supreme Court held that two kinds of searches are exempt.
Specifically, both (1) a non-investigatory, work-related intrusion and
(2) an investigatory search for evidence of suspected work-related
employee misfeasance are permissible without a warrant and should be
judged by the standard of reasonableness. Id. at 725-6.
Even so, the court made clear that "[n]ot everything that passes through
the confines of the business address can be considered part of the
workplace context...." Id. at 717. For example, the contents of an
employee's purse, briefcase, or closed luggage do not lose their private
character just because the employee has brought them to work. Thus, while
the circumstances may permit a supervisor to search in an employee's desk
for a work-related file, the supervisor usually will have to stop at the
employee's gym bag or briefcase. This analysis may have interesting
implications for "containers" like floppy disks, which certainly may be
either work-related or private, depending on the circumstances. It will
probably be reasonable for employers to assume that floppy disks found at
an office are part of the workplace, but there may be cases where a court
will treat a floppy disk as if it were a personal container of private items.
Of course, there may be some government agencies where employees do
consent (either expressly or tacitly) to searches of even private parcels
because of the nature of the job. For example, employees with security
clearances who work with classified material may expect that their
purses, briefcases, and other bags may be inspected under certain
circumstances. The factual variations on this "reasonable expectation"
theme are endless, and are tied absolutely to the details of each case.
The O'Connor Court did not address the appropriate standard to be applied
when a government employee is being investigated for criminal misconduct
or breaches of other non-work-related statutory or regulatory standards.
Id. at 729. In a case involving employee drug testing, at least one court
has noted, in dicta, that "[t]he government may not take advantage of any
arguably relaxed `employer' standard for warrantless searches....when its
true purpose is to obtain evidence of criminal activity without complying
with the more stringent standards that normally protect citizens against
unreasonably intrusive evidence-gathering." National Federation of
Federal Employees v. Weinberger, 818 F.2d 935, 943 n.12 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
Therefore, it would appear that whenever law enforcement is conducting an
evidence-gathering search, even if the search is to take place at a
government office, agents must either obtain a warrant or fall within
some generally recognized exception to the warrant requirement.
Appropriate consent from a third party is, of course, one of those exceptions.
Generally speaking, an employer (government or private) may consent to a
search of an employee's computer and peripherals if the employer has
common authority over them. Agents and prosecutors must consider whether,
under the facts, the employee would expect privacy in those items and
whether that expectation would be objectively reasonable. Relevant
factors include whether (1) the area/item to be searched has been set
aside for the employee's exclusive or personal use (e.g., does the
employee have the only key to the computer or do others have access to
the data); (2) the employee has been given permission to store personal
information on the system or in the area to be searched; (3) the employee
has been advised that the system may be accessed or looked at by others;
(4) there have been past inspections of the area/item and this fact is
known to the employee; and (5) there is an employment policy that
searches of the work area may be conducted at any time for any reason.
And when the employer is the federal government, another factor is (6)
whether the purpose of the search was work-related, rather than primarily
for law enforcement objectives. See generally O'Connor, 480 U.S. at 717
(employee's expectation of privacy must be assessed in the context of the
There are currently no cases specifically addressing an employer's
consent to search and seize an employee's computer (and related items).
But there are cases that discuss searches of an employee's designated
work area or desk. For example, the Seventh Circuit has upheld the search
of a hotel room that served as a welfare hotel's business office after
the hotel owner consented. United States v. Bilanzich, 771 F.2d 292 (7th
Cir. 1985). The room searched was used by the defendant/manager of the
hotel for hotel business, the hotel's books were stored there, and the
room was also used by doctors and welfare officials when they visited
residents. The manager kept the key to the room. In affirming the
manager's theft and forgery convictions (based in large part on documents
seized from the business office/hotel room), the Seventh Circuit found
that the hotel owner had the requisite control over and relationship to
the business office to consent to its search. The court rejected the
manager's argument that she had sole control over the business office
because she generally had the key, finding that the owner could request
access to the room at any time, that the room was shared with others
(visiting physicians and welfare officials), and that the items sought
were business records (e.g., welfare checks that the manager had forged).
Thus, the manager did not have exclusive control over the area nor was it
for her personal use. In addition, the purpose of the search was
"employment related," since the manager was defrauding the employer and
In United States v. Gargiso, 456 F.2d 584, 587 (2d Cir. 1972), the Second
Circuit upheld the search of a locked, wired-off area in the basement of
a book company -- a search to which the highest official of the book
company then on the scene (the company's vice president) had consented.
The defendant, an employee of the book company, objected to the search.
Both the defendant and the vice president had supervisory authority over
the area searched, and both also had keys to the area, as did other
company personnel. The court found that the vice president's control over
the area was equal to that of the employee's, making the consent
effective. The vice president had sufficient control over the area to
permit inspection in his own right and the employee had assumed the risk
that the vice president would do so.
In Donovan v. A.A. Beiro Construction Co.. Inc., 746 F.2d 894, 900 (D.C.
Cir. 1984), the D.C. Circuit found the D.C. Government's consent to a
search conducted by OSHA inspectors of a D.C. construction site effective
against one of the contractors. The site was a large, multi-employer area
surrounded by a chain link fence with no interior fences separating the
various contractors' work areas. There was considerable overlap and
interaction among the various contractors and their employees. The Court
found that the defendant/contractor had no reasonable expectation of
privacy in the area searched, because it was a common construction site
shared by many. Thus, the defendant/contractor had assumed the risk that
anyone with authority at the site would permit inspection of the common
In an earlier case, United States v. Blok, 188 F.2d 1019 (D.C. Cir.
1951), the D.C. Circuit affirmed the reversal of a petty larceny
conviction of a government employee, finding that the search of the
employee's desk violated the employee's right of privacy. The court found
that the employee had exclusive use of the desk and a reasonable
expectation of privacy in it. Her employer's consent to a police search
of the desk did not make the search reasonable. There was no policy
putting employees on notice that they should not expect privacy in their
desks. Nor was the search conducted by the employer for employment
purposes (e.g., searching for a file). "It was precisely the kind of
search by policemen for evidence of a crime against which the
constitutional prohibition was directed." Id. at 1021 (quoting the
district court). Thus, the employer's consent was ineffective because the
area searched was for the employee's exclusive and personal use (factor
number 1 above); the
purpose of the search was not work-related (factor number 6 above); and
there was no policy putting the employee on notice that her desk might be
subject to search (factors number 3 and 5 above). Significantly, the
O'Connor Court cited Blok with approval. O'Connor, 480 U.S. at 719.
e. Networks: System Administrators
Case law demonstrates that the courts will examine the totality of the
circumstances in determining whether an employee has a reasonable
expectation of privacy or whether an employer shares authority over the
employee's space and can consent to a search. But applying this
employer-consent case law to computer searches can become especially
troublesome when the employee's computer is not a stand-alone container,
but an account on a large network server. The difficulty is a practical
one. In the physical world, individuals often intuitively understand
their rights to control physical space and to restrict access by others
because they can observe how everyone uses the space. For example, with
filing cabinets, employees can see whether they are located in private
areas, whether others have access, whether the cabinets are locked, and
who has the keys. While explicit company policies certainly help to
clarify the situation, employees can physically observe company practices
and will probably conclude from their observations that certain property
is or is not private.
By contrast, in an electronic environment, employees cannot "see" when a
network administrator, supervisor, or anyone else accesses their data.
They cannot watch the way people behave with data, as they can with a
file cabinet, and deduce from their observations the measure of privacy
they ought to expect. As a practical matter, system administrators can,
and sometimes do, look at data. But when they do, they leave no physical
clues which would tell a user they have opened one of his files. Lacking
these physical clues, some users who are unfamiliar with computer
technology may falsely but honestly believe that their data is completely
private. Will the courts hold this false belief to be one that society is
prepared to recognize as reasonable? Will the courts still find it
reasonable, even when a user knows that there are such people as system
administrators who are responsible in some fashion for operating and
securing the entire network? If so, do users who actually understand the
technology and the scope of a system operator's access to data
have a lesser expectation of privacy and fewer Fourth Amendment
protections than users who are not so well informed? And what happens in
the years ahead as our population becomes increasingly computer literate?
Of course, these search and seizure questions are not limited to
computer networks in the workplace. Universities, libraries, and other
organizations, both public and private, may operate computer networks on
which users store data which they consider private--either partly or
completely. If those networks provide services to the public, they will
be controlled by the provisions of 18 U.S.C. 2702, which limits the
situations in which a service provider may release the contents of
qualifying electronic mail. (For a detailed discussion of this statute,
see "STORED ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS," infra p. 85.) But for material
which falls outside this statute, the Fourth Amendment analysis discussed
above will still apply.
Prosecutors who face these issues at trial should be ready to argue that
reasonable network users do, indeed, understand the role and power of
system operators well enough to expect them to be able to protect and
even restore their files. Therefore, absent some guarantees to the
contrary, reasonable users will also expect system administrators to be
able to access all data on the system. Certainly, if the system has
published clear policies about privacy on the network or has even
explained to users that its network administrators have oversight
responsibility and control, this will support the position that a system
operator's consent to a search was valid. But if the network and its
users have not addressed these issues and the situation is ambiguous, the
safest course will be to get a warrant. (Of course, if the system
administrator does have authority to access and produce a user's files
and simply will not do it on request, agents should use a subpoena.)
If agents choose to apply for a warrant and are concerned that a
target/user will delete his data before they can execute the search, the
agents should consider asking a cooperating system operator to make and
keep a backup of the target's data, which they can later procure under
the warrant or subpoena. The circumstances of each case will dictate the
wisest approach, but agents and prosecutors should explore all these
questions before they just ask a system administrator to produce a user's
F. INFORMANTS AND UNDERCOVER AGENTS
As in other types of investigations, it is often helpful to use
informants or undercover agents to develop evidence. In some cases, of
course, they may be of limited value (e.g., a case involving a lone
hacker). Additionally, as a matter of policy, there may be restrictions
on the type of undercover activities in which agents may engage. For
example, the FBI does not access bulletin boards simply to view board
activities when there is no reason to believe the board is involved in
Generally speaking, however, the law allows informers to read material
on electronic bulletin boards if they have the sysop's permission,
explicit or implicit, to access the material on the board. Many BBSs, for
example, have parts of the board which are open to the public and which
require no password or identification for access. Other boards may have
isolated directories, known as sub-boards, that are open only to paying
subscribers or trusted members, and those individuals must identify
themselves with passwords. Some sysops will ask newcomers to "introduce"
themselves and will verify the new user's name, address, and other
information before granting access with a password. These introductions
should follow the same rules that undercover work has traditionally
observed. Law enforcement agents need not identify themselves as such,
but they must confine their activities to those that are authorized: they
should not break into sections of the board for which they have not been
given access. Indeed, the Ninth and Tenth Circuits have both written, in
dicta, that an undercover participant must adhere scrupulously to the
scope of a defendant's invitation to join the organization. United States
v. Aguilar, 883 F.2d 662, 705 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 498 U.S.
1046 (1991); Pleasant v. Lovell, 876 F.2d 787, 803 (10th Cir. 1989).
Thus, an informant or undercover agent must not exceed his authorized
access, and having been granted access to some "levels" of the board does
not give him permission to break into others.
III. SEIZING HARDWARE
Depending on the facts of the case, the seizure of computer hardware
itself can be justified on one of three theories without regard to the
data it contains: (1) the hardware is itself contraband; (2) the hardware
was an instrumentality of the offense; or (3) the hardware constitutes
evidence of an offense. Of course, in many cases, hardware may be
seizable under more than one theory. For example, if a hacker uses his
computer to insert viruses into other systems, his computer may
constitute both an instrumentality of the offense and evidence admissible
As noted above under Definitions, (supra p. 2), hardware is defined as
the physical components of a computer system such as the central
processing unit (CPU), keyboard, monitor, modem, and printer.
A. THE INDEPENDENT COMPONENT DOCTRINE
We must highlight once again that computer systems are really a
combination of connected components (often by wire but increasingly by
wireless means). To say that the government has probable cause to seize a
"computer" does not necessarily mean it has probable cause to seize the
entire computer system (i.e., the computer and all connected peripheral
devices). Indeed, each component in a computer system should be
In a strictly corporeal world, this doctrine is easy to understand and
apply. For example, suppose a defendant stole a television and placed it
on a television stand that he lawfully owned. Agents with a warrant for
that television would not seize the stand, recognizing that the two items
are easily separable and that there is, simply put, no justification for
taking the stand.
With computers, the roles of the different attached components are not
always separable and it is more difficult to think in such concrete
terms. For example, agents with a warrant to seize a target's workstation
may discover that the workstation is nothing more than a dumb terminal,
and that all the evidence is in the server to which the dumb terminal is
connected by wire.
Nonetheless, it is simply unacceptable to suggest that any item
connected to the target device is automatically seizable. In an era of
increased networking, this kind of approach can lead to absurd results.
In a networked environment, the computer that contains the relevant
evidence may be connected to hundreds of computers in a local-area
network (LAN) spread throughout a floor, building, or university campus.
That LAN may also be connected to a global-area network (GAN) such as the
Internet. Taken to its logical extreme, the "take it because it's
connected" theory means that in any given case, thousands of machines
around the world can be seized because the target machine shares the
Obviously, this is not the proper approach. The better view is to seize
only those pieces of equipment necessary for basic input/output (i.e.,
the computer itself, plus the keyboard and monitor) so that the
government can successfully execute the warrant. When agents prepare
warrants for other devices, they should list only those components for
which they can articulate an independent basis for search or seizure
(i.e., the component itself is contraband, an instrumentality, or
evidence). Certainly, the independent component doctrine does not mean
that connected devices are exempt; it only requires that agents and
prosecutors articulate a reason for taking the item they wish to seize.
For example, if the defendant has sent letters to the White House
threatening the President's life, agents should explain, as a basis for
seizing the target's printer, the need to compare its type with the
letter. Additionally, there may be other times when the government should
seize peripherals that do not contain evidence but, again, there must be
a separate basis for the seizure. See, e.g., "Seizing Hardware and
Documentation so the System Will Operate at the Lab," infra p. 62.
B. HARDWARE AS CONTRABAND OR FRUITS OF CRIME
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b)(2) authorizes warrants to seize
"contraband, the fruits of crime, or things otherwise criminally
possessed." The rationale behind such seizures is to prevent and deter
crime. See Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 306 n.11 (1967). Often the
fruits of crime and
objects illegally possessed will also constitute evidence of a crime, so
that they also can be seized to help apprehend and convict criminals (see
infra p. 30).
2. Contraband and Fruits of Crime Defined The fruits of crime include
property obtained by criminal activity, United States v. Santarsiero, 566
F. Supp. 536 (S.D.N.Y. 1983) (cash and jewelry obtained by use of a
counterfeit credit card), and contraband is property which the private
citizen is not permitted to possess, Warden v. Hayden, supra; Aguilar v.
Texas, 378 U.S. 108 (1964) (narcotics). Even plans to commit a crime may
constitute contraband. Yancey v. Jenkins, 638 F. Supp. 340 (N.D. Ill.
Of course, many objects which are fruits of crime or illegally possessed
are innocent in themselves and can be possessed by at least certain
persons under certain conditions. See, e.g. United States v. Truitt, 521
F.2d 1174, 1177 (6th Cir. 1975) (noting that a person legally can possess
a sawed-off shotgun if it is properly registered to its owner, though its
lawful possession is rare). A court reviewing a seizure under Rule
41(b)(2) will examine whether the circumstances would have led a
reasonably cautious agent to believe that the object was a fruit of crime
or was illegally possessed. For example, the seizure of jewelry as a
fruit of crime in Santarsiero was upheld because a reliable informant had
told officers that the suspect had boasted of using counterfeit credit
cards to purchase jewelry. 566 F. Supp. at 544-45.
Certainly, there are instances where computer hardware and software are
contraband or a fruit of crime. For example, there have been several
recent cases involving the theft of computer equipment. Additionally,
hackers have been known to penetrate credit reporting companies,
illegally obtain credit card numbers, and then order computer equipment
with these illegal access devices. In such cases, the equipment that they
receive is a product of the fraud and should be seized as such.
C. HARDWARE AS AN INSTRUMENTALITY OF THE OFFENSE
1. Authority for Seizing Instrumentalities
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b)(3) authorizes warrants to seize
the instrumentalities of crime; that is, "property designed or intended
for use or which is or has been used as the means of committing a
criminal offense." The historical justification for the government's
ability to seize instrumentalities of crime is the prevention of their
use to commit future crimes. See Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 306 n.11
(1967); United States v. Boyette, 299 F.2d 92, 98 (4th Cir.) (Sobeloff,
C.J., dissenting), cert. denied, 369 U.S. 844 (1962).
2. Instrumentalities Defined
An instrumentality of an offense is any machinery, weapon, instrument,
or other tangible object that has played a significant role in a crime.
See, e.g., United States v. Viera, 569 F. Supp. 1419, 1428 (S.D.N.Y.
1983) (sophisticated scale used in narcotics trafficking and black light
used in counterfeiting currency). Where the object itself is innocent in
character, courts will assess its role in the crime to determine whether
it was an instrumentality. Compare United States v. Markis, 352 F.2d 860,
864-65 (2d Cir. 1965) (telephone used to take bets by operators of
illegal wagering business was an instrumentality because it was integral
to the criminal enterprise), vacated without opinion, 387 U.S. 425
(1967), with United States v. Stern, 225 F. Supp. 187, 192 (S.D.N.Y.
1964) (Rolodex file was not instrumentality where it contained names of
individuals involved in tax fraud scheme). As stated by the Southern
District of New York:
Not every article that plays some part in the commission of the alleged
crime is a means of committing it. .... Although it is not necessary
that the crime alleged could not have been committed but for the use of
the article seized, after a consideration of all the circumstances it
must appear that the article played a significant role in the commission
of the crime alleged.
Stern, 225 F. Supp. at 192 (emphasis in original).
Before the Supreme Court's decision in Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294
(1967), courts held that seizable property included instrumentalities,
but did not include mere evidence. See generally 3 Wright & Miller,
Federal Practice and Procedure: Criminal 2d 664 (1982). In practice,
however, judges were reluctant to suppress useful pieces of evidence at
trial, preferring instead to interpret the term "instrumentality" broadly
enough to encompass items of evidentiary value. For example, the district
court in United States v. Robinson, 287 F. Supp. 245 (N.D. Ind. 1968),
upheld the seizure of the following items, all of which connected the
defendant to the murder of a federal narcotics agent, as
"instrumentalities" of the crime and not "mere evidence": a pair of
shoes, a shirt, a jacket, handkerchiefs, spent shell casings, and wet
washcloths. Such legal gymnastics were abandoned when the Supreme Court
held, in Hayden, that the Fourth Amendment principally protected privacy
rights, not property rights, and secured "the same protection of privacy
whether the search is for 'mere evidence' or for fruits,
instrumentalities or contraband." Hayden, 387 U.S. at 306-07.
Although items that are evidence of crime may now be seized along with
instrumentalities, fruits, and contraband, this historical perspective is
important for understanding why some early decisions may have categorized
evidentiary items as instrumentalities. Moreover, the distinction between
"an instrumentality" and "mere evidence" remains critical in computer
crime cases because it may determine the government's ability to seize
hardware. If a computer and all its peripherals are instrumentalities of
a crime, the warrant should authorize the seizure of these items. But if
we are seeking the computer only for the documents (mere evidence) it
contains, it may be more difficult to justify the seizure or retention of
Applying the independent component doctrine to the rule permitting
seizure of instrumentalities will, in most cases, not be difficult. For
example, if an individual engaging in wire fraud printed out thousands of
phony invoices on his home computer, it would be reasonable to take the
computer, monitor, keyboard, and printer. If the individual
electronically mailed these invoices to his victims, it would also be
appropriate to seize his external modem (if the modem were internal it
would, of course, be seized when the agents took the computer itself).
If, instead of using electronic mail, he used a conventional fax machine,
it would be reasonable to seize the fax as it, too would have played a
significant role in the commission of the offense.
D. HARDWARE AS EVIDENCE OF AN OFFENSE
1. Authority for Seizing Evidence
In 1972, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b) was amended to
authorize seizing "mere evidence" of a crime. In relevant part, the Rule
now states: "A warrant may be issued under this rule to search for and
seize any (1) property that constitutes evidence of the commission of a
2. Evidence Defined
A physical item is evidence if it will aid in apprehending or convicting
a person who has committed a crime. The evidence seized need not be
admissible at trial.
Courts will evaluate a seizure under this test according to what a
reasonable person would believe under the circumstances, and law
enforcement officers will not be judged after-the-fact on how helpful the
seized evidence actually was in apprehending or convicting a suspect. See
Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463, 483 (1976) (holding that the "trained
special investigator reasonably could have believed" the seized evidence
could be used to show criminal intent); United States v. Truitt, 521 F.2d
1174, 1176-78 (6th Cir. 1975) (holding that a reasonably cautious police
officer could have believed under the circumstances that a sawed-off
shotgun, although legal if registered, was incriminating evidence).
Of course, simply because an item is "evidence of a crime" does not mean
that other restrictions may not apply. Law enforcement officials should
be aware of other limits imposed by the Constitution, statutes, and
regulations upon the seizure of evidence. See, e.g., Guidelines on
Methods of Obtaining Documentary Materials Held by Third Parties, 28
C.F.R. 59.1-.6 (governing the application for search warrants for
documentary evidence held by non-suspect third parties).
Although computers commonly contain evidence, sometimes they are
evidence. If an extortionist sent a letter to his victim with unique
print characteristics (e.g., the top half of the letter "W" was missing),
his daisy~wheel printer would constitute evidence which could be seized.
E. TRANSPORTING HARDWARE FROM THE SCENE
Whether a computer is seized as contraband, an instrumentality, or
evidence, it is important to transport it properly. With some simple
computers, moving the equipment is a straightforward proposition. But
computer systems are becoming so increasingly complex and diverse that it
is harder than ever for technically untrained agents to avoid mistakes.
These Guidelines cannot possibly substitute for the expertise that comes
from special training courses in seizing, searching, and preserving
electronic evidence. Indeed, the discussion that follows is meant only as
introduction and orientation to these issues, and not as a comprehensive
guide to all the technical contingencies which may arise during a search.
The team for a computer-related search should, if possible, include at
least one technically trained agent to act as a leader in these areas.
Clearly, as complex computer systems become increasingly common, law
enforcement agencies will need more trained agents at almost every crime
scene. In the meantime, the following discussion may help prosecutors and
investigators to anticipate the problems which can confront them.
First, agents must protect the equipment from damage. Second, to the
extent they are transporting information storage devices (e.g., hard
drives, floppy disks), improper handling can cause loss of data. Third,
it may be impossible to make the system work in the field office,
laboratory, or courtroom if the seizing agents did not carefully pack and
move the computer system so that it can be successfully reassembled
Before the search begins, the search leader should prepare a detailed
plan for documenting and preserving electronic evidence, and should take
time to carefully brief the entire search team to protect both the
identity and integrity of all the data. At the scene, agents must
remember to collect traditional types of evidence (e.g., latent
fingerprints off the keyboard) before touching anything. They must
remember, too, that computer data can be destroyed by strong magnetic
fields. (Low density magnetic media is more susceptible to such
interference than high density media.) Last, some computer experts will
not examine evidence if anyone else has already tried to search or
manipulate the data. Their chain-of-custody and integrity-of-evidence
procedures will not allow them to examine the computer if its original
crime-scene seal has been broken.
The agents executing the actual search must take special precautions when
disassembling and packing computer equipment. This careful approach
protects not only the hardware items, but also the integrity and
accessibility of the data inside. Before disconnecting any cables, it is
helpful to videotape or photograph the site (including the screen, if
possible, and all wiring connections) and prepare a wiring schematic.
This will document the condition of the equipment upon the agents'
arrival and show how the system was configured. Agents should disconnect
all remote access to the system (e.g., unplug the telephone cord, not the
power cord, from the modem) and disconnect network cables from the
servers so that no one can alter or erase information during the search.
Investigators need to accurately label each cable and the device and port
to which the cable connects before disconnecting anything. It is a good
idea to attach tags at every connection point on every cable to record
all relevant information. It is especially important to label every
vacant port as "vacant" so that there is no confusion later. (If vacant
ports are not labeled, it is impossible for an expert to tell whether the
unlabeled port was in fact vacant, or whether an important label simply
fell off.) Once this is done, agents are ready to disassemble, tag and
inventory the equipment.
Investigators must determine which drives, disks, and other magnetic
media need to be protected. If a hard disk drive is being moved, they
must insure that the read/write heads are secured to prevent damage. Some
systems secure (park) the heads automatically whenever the machine is not
in use, but other systems may require that a specific command be executed
or that the heads be secured mechanically. The manufacturer's operating
manual should specify the proper procedure for each system.
Agents should protect floppy disk drives according to manufacturer's
recommendations. Some suggest inserting a new diskette or piece of
cardboard in the drive slot; others do not. (As with hard drives, each
manufacturer's instructions may be found in the system manual).
Investigators must also label diskettes (either individually or in
groups), mark them as evidence and place them in non-plastic evidence
Agents must be conscious of static electricity buildup during the
execution of the warrant since static electricity can "zap" a disk and
damage data. So can degaussing equipment (an electronic appliance that
creates a strong magnetic field and can be used to effectively erase a
magnetic tape or disk). A well-known story in law enforcement circles
involves a hacker who allegedly magnetized his metal door frame, thus
creating a magnetic field that erased magnetic media as agents carried it
through the doorway. This story has not been verified and, even if true,
such an event is unlikely to occur now because high density media is not
easily disrupted by magnetic fields. Nonetheless, a device to measure
magnetic fields (a compass or, even better, a gaussmeter) can determine
whether such fields exist and, as a general rule, agents should avoid
placing magnetic media near any strong magnetic field. Magnetic fields
may be created by telephones, radio transmitters, and photocopiers.
Additionally, although magnetic media has often been taken through
airport metal detectors and X-ray machines without damage, it is wiser
not to take magnetic media through these devices. (It is the motor
driving the conveyor belt on the X-ray machine, not the fluoroscope
itself, that creates the magnetic field which causes the damage.)
Transporting agents should keep all hardware and software in dust-free,
climate-controlled environments. Computer-related evidence is sensitive
to heat and humidity and should not be stored in the back seat or trunk
of a car without special precautions. Temperature extremes may render
magnetically stored evidence unreadable, and various types of
contamination can damage electronic equipment. A safe range for storing
magnetic media is between 40-90F and 20%-80% humidity, free of dust and
[no page 34] [page 35]
Hardware searches are not conceptually difficult. Like searching for
weapons, the items sought are tangible. They occupy physical space and
can be moved in familiar ways. Searches for data and software are far
more complex. For purposes of clarity, these types of searches must be
examined in two distinct groups:
(1) searches where the information
sought is on the computer at the search scene and
(2) searches where the
information sought has been stored off-site, and the computer at the
search scene is used to access this off-site location.
In some cases, the distinction is insignificant, and many topics covered
in this section apply equally to both types of searches. On the other
hand, there are certain unique issues that arise only when the computer
is part of a network. For example, since Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(a) requires
that a search warrant be issued by a court in the district where the
property is located, agents may have to get a second warrant in another
district if the target has sent data to a distant computer. See
"Describing the Place to be Searched," infra p. 92.
Although "property" is defined in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure
41(h) to include "documents, books, papers and other tangible objects,"
(emphasis added), courts have held that intangible property such as
information may be seized. In United States v. Villegas, 899 F.2d 1324,
1334-35 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 991 (1990), the Second Circuit
noted that warrants had been upheld for intangible property such as
telephone numbers called from a given phone line and recorded by a pen
register, conversations overheard by means of a microphone touching a
heating duct, the movement of property as tracked by location-monitoring
beepers, and images seized with video cameras and telescopes. The court
in Villegas upheld a warrant which authorized agents to search a cocaine
factory and covertly take photographs without authorizing the seizure of
any tangible objects. But see United States
3 Any home PC can be connected to a network simply by adding a modem.
Thus, in any ease where a modem is present, agents should consider the
possibility that the computer user has stored valuable information at
some remote location.
v. Johns, 948 F.2d 599 (9th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 3046
(1992) (a "sneak and peek" warrant executed without giving notice to the
defendants that the search had occurred violated Rule 41(d)).
B. INFORMATION AS CONTRABAND
The same theories which justify seizing hardware--contraband or fruit of
crime, instrumentality, or evidence--also apply to seizing information.
See "Authority for Seizing Contraband or Fruits of Crime," supra p. 26.
Because individuals often obtain copies of software in violation of
copyright laws, it may be appropriate to seize that software as well as
any documentation (such as photocopied software manuals) because they
are likely to be illegally obtained. (Software producers may allow a
purchaser to make a backup copy of the software bought, but these copies
may not be disseminated because of copyright laws.) Lists of telephone
card access codes and passwords for government computer networks may also
be considered contraband, because their possession is prohibited by
statute if the possessor has the requisite mens rea. 18 U.S.C.
1029(a)(3), 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(6).
C. INFORMATION AS AN INSTRUMENTALITY
Rule 41(b) broadly defines what may be seized as an instrumentality: any
"property designed or intended for use or which is or has been used as
the means of committing a criminal offense." Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(b)(3).
This includes both tangible and intangible property. See United States
v. Villegas, supra, p. 35. Thus, in some cases, informational documents
and financial instruments which have been used in the commission of an
offense may be seized as instrumentalities of crime. Compare Abel v.
United States, 362 U.S. 217, 237-9 (1960) (documents used in connection
with suspect's illegal alien status were instrumentalities, including
phony birth certificates, bank records,
and vaccination records) with Application of Commercial Inv. Co., 305 F.
Supp. 967 (S.D.N.Y. 1969) ($5 million in securities were not
instrumentalities where the government suspected improprieties with an
$18,000 brokerage account and the securities were at most "incidental" to
Likewise, investigators should seize objects if they are "designed or
intended for use" as instrumentalities. Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(b)(3).
Sometimes an item will obviously fit that description (like software
designed to help hackers crack passwords or lists of stolen credit card
numbers) but, at other times, it may not be so simple. Even so, as long
as a reasonable person in the agent's position would believe the item to
be an instrumentality, the courts will probably respect the agent's
judgment. This is, after all, the same test used to determine when an
object would aid apprehension or conviction of a criminal. See Andresen
v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463, 483 (1976). As such, the particular facts of
the case are very important. For example, if an agent investigating the
sysop of an illegal bulletin board knows that the board only operates on
one personal computer, a second computer sitting in the same room is
probably not an instrumentality. But if the agent has heard from a
reliable informant that the suspect has boasted about expanding his
operation to a second board, that second computer is probably "intended"
as an instrumentality, and the agent should take it. Additionally, if the
suspect has substantially modified a personal computer to enhance its
usefulness for a particular crime (perhaps by installing
password-cracking software), an agent might well reasonably believe that
the computer and the software was "designed" for criminal activity.
D. INFORMATION AS EVIDENCE
Before the Supreme Court's rejection of the "mere evidence" rule in
Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 300-301 (1967), courts were inconsistent
in ruling whether records that helped to connect the criminal to the
offense were instrumentalities of crime (and thus seizable), or were
instead merely evidence of crime (and thus not seizable). Compare Marron
v. United States, 275 U.S. 192 (1927) (approving prohibition agent's
seizure of bills and ledger books belonging to speakeasy operators as
instrumentalities of crime) with United States v. Lefkowitz, 285 U.S. 452
(1932)(disapproving prohibition agent's seizure of papers intended to
solicit orders for illegal liquor). Indeed, several courts have concluded
that, when it comes to documents, it is impossible to
separate the two categories. See Hayden, 387 U.S. at 302 (stating that
the distinction between mere evidence and instrumentalities "is wholly
irrational, since, depending on the circumstances, the same `papers and
effects' may be `mere evidence' in one case and `instrumentality' in
another"); United States v. Stern, 225 F. Supp. 187, 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1964)
("It would be hazardous to attempt any definition [of papers that are
instrumentalities of crime and not mere evidence]; we shall not."). Now
that evidence of crime may be seized in the same way as instrumentalities
of crime, it is useful to acknowledge that, in most instances, documents
and other information connecting the criminal to his offense should be
viewed as evidence of the crime, and not as instrumentalities. For
example, in United States v. Lindenfield, 142 F.2d 829, 830-32 (2d Cir.),
cert. denied, 323 U.S. 761 (1944), the prescription records of a doctor
who illegally prescribed morphine to "patients" were classified as
evidence, not as instrumentalities.
The prescription records in Lindenfield illustrate the sort of document
that may be seized as evidence: records that reveal the operation of the
criminal enterprise over time. Other examples include the customer lists
of narcotics traffickers, telephone bills of hackers who break into
computer networks, and plans for the fraud or embezzlement of corporate
and financial targets. This documentary evidence may be in paper or book
form, or it may be stored electronically in a computer or on a backup
tape. As with other types of evidence, documents may be seized if they
aid in showing intent and the absence of mistake on the suspect's part,
even though they may not relate directly to the commission of the crime,
but to some other similar transaction instead. See Andresen v. Maryland,
427 U.S. 463, at 483-84 (1976)(approving seizure of documents about a
second transaction because they showed criminal intent and absence of
mistake in the first transaction).
1. Evidence of Identity
Evidence of a crime also includes various types of identification
evidence. For example, courts have recognized that clothing seen worn by
a criminal during the commission of the offense constitutes evidence of
because it helps to tie the suspect to the crime. See, e.g., United
States v. Korman, 614 F.2d 541, 547 (6th Cir.)(approving the seizure of a
green ski jacket as both evidence of and an instrumentality of the
crime), cert. denied, 446 U.S. 952 (1980).
Documents that incriminate a suspect's co-conspirators also may be seized
as evidence because they help identify other involved parties and connect
them with the suspect. See, e.g., United States v. Santarsiero, 566 F.
Supp. 536, 544 (S.D.N.Y. 1983) (approving the seizure of the suspect's
notebook in a counterfeit credit card investigation where others were
working with or purchasing cards from him, and the notebook contained
telephone numbers that the investigating officers could reasonably
believe would help in identifying and connecting others with the
suspect's crimes). In many computer crimes, we have found that hackers
work jointly and pool hacking information. In these cases, telephone
records may prove this connection. Moreover, agents may seize evidence
that helps identify the occupant of a home or office connected to the
crime, where the home or office is used regularly by more than one
person. See, e.g., United States v. Whitten, 706 F.2d 1000, 1008-09 (9th
Cir. 1983)(approving the seizure of telephone books, diaries, photos,
utility bills, telephone bills, personal property, cancelled mail, keys,
rent receipts, deeds, and leases that helped establish who owned and
occupied premises used for a large scale narcotics operation, where the
premises were used by more than one person and the warrant authorized
seizing items "indicating the ownership or occupancy of the residence"),
cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1100 (1984). As with houses and offices, computers
are often used by more than one person, and this sort of evidence may
help establish just who used the computer or computers to commit the
2. Specific Types of Evidence
a. Hard Copy Printouts
Any information contained in a computer system may have been printed out
by the target of the investigation. Finding a printed copy may be
valuable for a number of reasons. First, a printout may display an
earlier version of
data that has since-been altered or deleted. Second, in certain
electronic environments (such as bulletin boards), individuals may claim
to lack knowledge about what information is electronically stored in the
computer (e.g., a bulletin board operator may disavow any knowledge that
his board contained illegal access codes that were posted and downloaded
by others). Finding printed copies in someone's possession may negate
this defense. Third, the printouts may tie the crime to a particular
printer which, in turn, may be seizable as an instrumentality (e.g., the
printouts may reveal that extortionate notes were printed on a certain
printer, thus warranting seizure of the printer).
b. Handwritten Notes
Finally, agents should be alert for notes in manuals, on the equipment,
or in the area of the computer. These may provide critical keys to
breaking passwords, finding the file or directory names of important
data, operating the hardware or software, identifying the suspect's
electronic or telephone connections with co-conspirators and victims, or
finding login names or accounts.
E. PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION
1. In General
Warrants to search computers which contain privileged information must
meet the same requirements as warrants to search for and seize paper
documents under similar conditions; that is, the warrant should be
narrowly drawn to include only the data pertinent to the investigation,
and that data should be described as specifically as possible. See, e.g.
Klitzman v. Krut, 744 F.2d 955 (3d Cir. 1984). Since a broad search of
computers used by confidential fiduciaries (e.g., attorneys or
physicians) is likely to uncover personal information about individuals
who are unconnected with the
investigation, it is important to instruct any assisting forensic
computer experts not to examine files about uninvolved third parties any
more than absolutely necessary to locate and seize the information
described in the warrant.
a. Doctors, Lawyers, and Clergy
Federal law recognizes some, but not all, of the common law testimonial
privileges. Fed. R. Evid. 501. Indeed, Congress has recognized a "special
concern for privacy interests in cases in which a search or seizure for
.... documents would intrude upon a known confidential relationship such
as that which may exist between clergyman and parishioner; lawyer and
client; or doctor and patient." 42 U.S.C. 2000aa-11(1)(3). At Congress's
direction, see 42 U.S.C. 2000aa-11(a), the Attorney General has issued
guidelines for federal officers who want to obtain documentary materials
from disinterested third parties. 42 U.S.C. 2000aa-11. Under these
rules, they should not use a search warrant to obtain documentary
materials believed to be in the private possession of a disinterested
third party physician, lawyer, or clergyman where the material sought or
likely to be reviewed during the execution of the warrant contains
confidential information on patients, clients, or parishioners. 28 C.F.R.
59.4(b). A search warrant can be used, however, if using less intrusive
means would substantially jeopardize the availability or usefulness of
the materials sought; access to the documentary materials appears to be
of substantial importance to the investigation; and the application for
the warrant has been recommended by the U.S. Attorney and approved by the
appropriate Deputy Assistant Attorney General. 28 C.F.R. 59.4(b)(1) and
b. Publishers and Authors
Additionally, Congress has expressed a special concern for publishers and
journalists in the Privacy Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa. Generally
speaking, agents may not search for or seize any "work product materials"
(defined by statute) from someone "reasonably believed to have a purpose
to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other
similar form of public communication." 42 U.S.C. 2000aa(a). In
addition, as an even
broader proposition, government officers cannot search for or seize
"documentary materials" (also defined) from someone who possesses them in
connection with a purpose to similarly publish. 42 U.S.C. 2000aa(b).
These protections do not apply to contraband, fruits of a crime, or
things otherwise criminally possessed. 42 U.S.C. 2000aa-7.
Although this provision may seem, at first blush, to have a somewhat
limited application for law enforcement, it has emerged as a frequent
issue in computer searches. Because even a stand-alone computer can hold
thousands of pages of information, it is common for users to mix data so
that evidence of crime is commingled with material which is innocuous--or
even statutorily protected. And as a technical matter, analysts sometimes
cannot recover the electronic evidence without, in some manner, briefly
searching or seizing the protected data. Moreover, this problem becomes
exponentially more difficult, both legally and practically, if the target
computers are part of a network which holds the work of many different
people. The larger the network and the more varied its services, the
harder it is to predict whether there might be information on the system
which could arguably qualify for statutory protection. (This complex area
of the law is discussed in detail at "THE PRIVACY PROTECTION ACT, 42
U.S.C. 2000aa," infra p. 72. It is critical that prosecutors and agents
read this section and the statute with care before undertaking a search
which may intrude on protected materials.)
If the person who holds the documents sought is not "disinterested" but a
target of the investigation, the rules are understandably different. In
those cases, agents may get a warrant to search the files for
confidential information (regardless of whether that information is
technically "privileged" under Federal law), but the warrant should be
drawn as narrowly as possible to include only information specifically
about the case under investigation.
When the target of an investigation has complete control of the computer
to be searched (such as a stand-alone PC), it may be difficult to find
all the evidence without examining the entire disk drive or storage
diskettes. Even in situations like these, it may be possible to get other
people in the suspect's office to help locate the pertinent files without
examining everything. When a
computer must be removed from the target's premises to examine it, agents
must take care that other investigators avoid reading confidential files
unrelated to the case. Before examining everything on the computer,
analysts should try to use other methods to locate only the material
described in the warrant. Finally, as experts comb for hidden or erased
files or information contained between disk sectors, they must continue
to protect the unrelated, confidential information as much as possible.
3. Using Special Masters
In rare instances, the court may appoint a special master to help search
a computer which contains privileged information. See, e.g., DeMassa v.
Nunez, 747 F.2d 1283 (9th Cir. 1984). A neutral master would be
responsible to the court, and could examine all the documents and
determine what is privileged. If the court appoints a master, the
government should ask for a neutral computer expert to help the master
recover all the data without destroying or altering anything. In cases
like these, the computer expert needs detailed instructions on the search
procedures to be performed. In no event should the target of the search
or his employees serve as the master's computer expert.
F. UNDERSTANDING WHERE THE EVIDENCE MIGHT BE: STAND- ALONE PCs, NETWORKS
AND FILE-SERVERS, BACKUPS, ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARDS, AND ELECTRONIC
1. Stand-Alone PCs
When searching for information, agents must not overlook any storage
devices. This includes hard drives, floppy disks, backup tapes, CD-ROMs4,
WORM drives 5, and anything else that could hold data. In addition,
notwithstanding the high-tech nature of computer searches, investigators
must remember basic evidentiary techniques. If identification is an
issue, they should look for fingerprints or other handwritten notes and
labels that may help prove identity. If data is encrypted, a written copy
of the password is clearly important.
4 CD-ROM stands for Compact Disk--Read Only Memory. Much like a compact
disk for music, it allows the user to search for and read information
without being able to alter it.
5 WORM stands for Write Once Read Many. The user can write large amounts
of information to a platter (a large disk); but once written, the platter
can only be read, not altered.
a. Input/Output Devices: Do Monitors, Modems, Printers, and Keyboards
Ever Need to be Searched?
Prosecutors must always keep in mind the independent component doctrine (
supra p. 25); that is, there must be a basis for seizing each particular
item. If agents are only searching for information, it may be senseless
to seize hardware that cannot store information.
That said, it is important to remember that information can be retrieved
from many hardware devices, even those not normally associated with a
storage function. Generally speaking, input and output (I/O) devices such
as keyboards, monitors, and printers do not permanently store data. Most
data is stored on devices such as hard drives, CD-ROMs, and floppy disks.
By contrast, I/O devices are used to send data to, and receive data from,
the computer. Once the computer is turned off, I/O devices do not store
information. For example, when a computer is turned off, the information
on the screen is lost unless it has been saved to a storage device.
However, there are significant exceptions to this general rule. A trained
computer specialist, using specialized techniques, may find data or other
evidence even on I/O devices. The following list is not all-inclusive,
but rather offers some examples of I/O devices that may provide useful
evidence even after they have been turned off.
(1) Laser printers -- It may be possible to search for images of the last
page printed on laser printers. This technique requires planning because
the expert must examine the printer before it is moved. If this type of
evidence may be needed, a computer expert must be ready at the
scene with the necessary equipment. Additionally, paper containing
information may still be inside a laser printer due to a paper jam that
was not cleared.
(2) Hard disk print buffers -- Some laser printers have five- or
ten-megabyte hard drives that store an image before it prints, and the
information will stay on the drive until the printer runs out of memory
space and writes over it. One example of a printer that may have an
internal hard drive is the Qume 1000 Color Printer. An expert would be
able to search the hard drive for information sent to and stored by that
(3) Print Spooler Device -- This device holds information to be printed.
The spooler may be holding a print job if the printer was not ready to
print when the print command was given (e.g., the printer was not turned
on or was out of paper). This device should be handled at the scene since
the information will be lost when power is disrupted.
(4) Ribbon printers -- Like old typewriter ribbons, printer ribbons
contain impressions from printed jobs. These impressions can be recovered
by examining the ribbon.
(5) Monitors -- Any burning of the screen phosphorus may reveal data or
graphics commonly left on the screen.
(6) Keyboards -- Although they do not normally store information, some
unusual keyboards are actually computer workstations and may contain an
internal diskette drive.
(7) Hard Cards -- These appear to be a typical function board but they
function like a hard disk drive and store information.
(8) Scanner -- Flatbed type scanners may have hard paper copy underneath
(9) Fax machines -- Although some kinds of stand-alone fax machines
simply scan and send data without storing it, other models can store the
data (e.g., on a hard drive) before sending it. Significantly, the data
remains in the machine's memory until overwritten. Some fax machines
contain two or more megabytes of memory--enough to hold hundreds of pages
[page 46] b. Routine Data Backups
Even on stand-alone systems, computer users often make backup copies of
files to protect against hardware failure or other physical disruptions.
If the computer has any sort of failure which destroys the original copy
of data or programs (e.g., a hard disk failure), the data can then be
restored from the backups. How often backups are made is solely up to the
user. As a practical matter, however, most computer-literate users will
back up data regularly since mechanical failures are not uncommon and it
is often difficult and time~-consuming to recreate data that has been
irretrievably lost. Backup copies can be made on magnetic tape, disks, or
2. Networked PCs
Increasingly, computers are linked with other computers. This can be done
with coaxial cable in a local area network, via common telephone lines,
or even through a wireless network, using radio frequency (RF)
communications. Due to this interconnectivity, it has become more
important than ever to ascertain from sources or surveillance what type
of system agents will encounter. Without knowing generally what is there
before the search, investigators could end up with nothing more than a
"dumb terminal" (no storage capability) connected to a system which
stores the files in the next county or state. It would be akin to
executing a search warrant for a book~making operation on a vacant room
that only has a phone which forwards calls to the actual operation site.
During the planning stage of a search, the government must consider the
possibility of off-site storage locations.
The following are systems or devices which make it possible for a suspect
to store data miles, or even continents, away from her own computer:
FILE SERVER: A file server is a computer on a network that stores the
programs and data files shared by the users of the network. A file server
acts like a remote disk drive, enabling someone to store information on a
computer system other than his own. It can be located in another judicial
district from the target machine.
ELECTRONIC MAIL: Electronic mail provides for the transmission of
messages and files between computers over a communications network.
Sending information in this way is similar in some ways to mailing a
letter through the postal service. The messages are sent from one
computer through a network to the electronic address of another specific
computer or to a series of computers of the sender's choice. The
transmitted messages (and attached files) are either stored at the
computer of the addressee (such as someone's personal computer) or at a
mail server (a machine dedicated, at least in part, to storing mail). If
the undelivered mail is stored on a server, it will remain there until
the addressee retrieves it. When people "pick up" e-mail from the mail
server, they usually receive only a copy of their mail, and the stored
message is maintained in the mail server until the addressee deletes it
(some systems allow senders to delete mail on the server before
delivery). Of course, deleted mail may sometimes be recovered by
undeleting the message (if not yet overwritten) or by obtaining a backup
copy (if the server was backed up before the message was deleted).
ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEMS (BBS): A bulletin board system is a
computer dedicated, in whole or in part, to serving as an electronic
meeting place. A BBS computer system may contain information, programs,
and e-mail, and is set up so that users can dial the bulletin board
system, read and leave messages for other users, and download and upload
software programs for common use. Some BBSs also have gateways which
allow users to connect to other bulletin boards or networks. A BBS can
have multiple telephone lines (so that many people can use it at the same
time) or a single line where a user's access is first-come, first-served.
BBSs can have several levels of access, sometimes called "sub-boards" or
"conferences." Access to the different conferences is usually controlled
by the system operator with a password system. A single user may have
several different passwords, one for each different level or conference.
A user may store documents, data, programs, messages, and even
photographs in the different levels of the BBS.
A bulletin board system may be located anywhere telephone lines go.
Therefore, if a suspect may have stored important information on a BBS, a
pen register on the suspect's phone may reveal the location of these
stored files. Agents must be careful, though, because sysops have been
known to forward incoming calls through a simple phone in one spot to
their BBS computers somewhere else. Sometimes these calls hop between
houses, and sometimes, between jurisdictions. Investigators cannot assume
that the phone number called by the suspect is always the end of the
VOICE-MAIL SYSTEMS: A voice-mail system is a complex phone answering
machine (computer) which allows individuals to send and receive telephone
voice messages to a specific "mailbox" number. A person can call the
voice-mail system (often a 1-800 number) and leave a message in a
particular person's mailbox, retrieve messages left by other people, or
transfer one message to many different mailboxes in a list. Usually,
anyone can leave messages, but it takes a password to pick them up or
change the initial greeting. The system turns the user's voice into
digital data and stores it until the addressee erases it or another
message overwrites it. Criminals sometimes use voice mailboxes
(especially mailboxes of unsuspecting people, if the criminals can beat
the mailbox password) as remote deaddrops for information which may be
valuable in a criminal case. Voice mailboxes are located in the message
system computer of the commercial vendor which supplies the voice-mail
service, or they can be found on the computer at the location called.
Voice mail messages can be written on magnetic disk or remain in the
computer's memory, depending on the vendor's system.
Of course, all networked systems, whether data or voice, may keep routine
and disaster backups.
a. Routine Backups
Making backups is a routine, mandatory discipline on multi-user systems.
On larger systems, backups may be created as often as two to three times
per working shift. Usually backups are made once per day on larger
systems and once per week on smaller ones. Backups are usually stored in
a controlled environment to protect the integrity of the data (e.g.,
locked in a file cabinet or safe). The system administrators will usually
have written procedures which set out how often backup copies will be
made and where they will be kept. Backups for large systems are often
stored at remote locations.
b. Disaster Backups
These are additional backups of important data meant to survive all
contingencies, such as fire, flood, etc. As extra protection, the data is
stored off-site usually in another building belonging to the business or
in rented storage space. It would be unusual to find the disaster backups
near the routine backups or original data. Again, these copies can be
stored on diskettes, magnetic tape, or cartridge.
G . SEARCHING FOR INFORMATION
1. Business Records and Other Documents
Obtaining records from a multi-user computer system raises certain issues
that are uncommon in the paper world. When dealing with papers stored in
filing cabinets, agents can secure the scene and protect the integrity of
the evidence by physically restricting access to the storage container
and its papers. Electronic records are, of course, easier to alter or
destroy. More important, such alteration or destruction may occur while
the agent is looking at a copy of the document on A workstation terminal.
Therefore, it is important to control remote access to data while the
search is being conducted. This can often be done by prohibiting access
to the file or file server in question, either by software commands or by
physically disconnecting cables. This should only be done by an expert,
however, because altering the system's configuration may have significant
If the system administrator is cooperating with investigators, the task
becomes much easier, and agents should use the least intrusive means
possible to obtain the data (e.g., a request, grand jury subpoena, or
administrative subpoena). Of course, if the entire business is under
investigation or there is reason to believe that records may be altered
or destroyed, a search warrant should be used.
2. Data Created or Maintained by Targets
Targets of criminal investigations, particularly computer crimes, may
have data on a multi-user computer system. Where the target owns or
operates the computer system in question, it is safest to use warrants,
although subpoenas may be appropriate in the right case.
Where the target does not control the system but merely has data on it,
the sysop may be willing to provide the requested data assuming he has
the authority to do so. Never forgetting the legal restraints of 18
U.S.C. 2702 (see "Stored Electronic Communications," infra p. 85), the
sysop can, as a practical matter, probably retrieve the needed data
rather easily. Ordinarily, a multi-user computer system will have
specific accounts assigned to each user or groups of users. While the
various "users" may not be able to get into each others' files, the
system operator (like a landlord with passkeys) can usually examine and
copy any file in the computer system. (Typically, the sysop has what is
called "superuser" authority or "root" access.)
Some systems, by their rules, may prohibit the system managers or
operators from reading files in specific data areas or may expressly
limit the purposes for which sysops may exercise their access. In those
cases, sysops may insist on a court order or subpoena. If, on the other
hand, users have consented to complete sysop access in order to use the
system, a request to the sysop for the information may be all that is
required. In either event, rarely will it be wise for investigating
agents to search large computer systems by themselves. Without the
sysop's help, it may be difficult (if not impossible) for agents to comb
a multi-user computer system the way they search file cabinets for paper
When using a subpoena with a future return date, agents should
specifically ask for the computerized records as they exist at time of
service, and state clearly that service of the subpoena obliges the
recipient to preserve and safeguard the subpoenaed information by
making a copy. Investigators should explain that even if the recipient
contests the subpoena, he must not only copy the data "as is," but must
also confirm to the agent that the copy has been made. The subpoena
should also say that failure to preserve the subpoenaed information may
subject the recipient to sanctions for contempt. In some
circumstances, a "forthwith subpoena" may even be appropriate. If all
this is not done, the data may be altered or erased--deliberately,
accidentally, or in the normal course of business--before the return date
on the subpoena.
3. Limited Data Searches
Once analysts have determined the operating system and have taken
precautions to protect the integrity of the data, they will select tools
to aid in the search. Using specially designed software called
"utilities" will greatly help, because analysts can tailor the search to
look for specified names, dates, and file extensions. They can scan disks
for recently deleted data and recover it in partial or sometimes complete
format. They can also identify and expose hidden files. In some cases,
analysts may find files that are not in a readable format; the data may
have been compressed to save space or encrypted to control access to it.
Here again, utility packages will help recover the data. In designing the
data search, they might use a variety of utilities. Some are
off~the-shelf software available from most computer retailers. But
utility software can also be custom-made, especially designed to perform
specific search functions that are specified in standard laboratory
procedures. Obviously, agents should rely upon experts for this kind of
analysis. (See APPENDIX C, p. 143, for a list of federal sources for
There are several reasons why analysts will probably want to do a limited
rather than a complete search through the data. First of all, the law in
general prefers searches of all things--computer data included--to be as
discrete and specific as possible. Second, the warrant may specify
particular files, directories, or sub-directories, or certain categories
of data. Finally, even if the facts of a case give an analyst free rein
to search all the data, the economies of scale usually require a more
systematic approach. At the least, analysts should plan for a methodical
inventory of directories and sub-directories and prepare to document all
the steps taken in the search. Because data is so easy to alter or
destroy, analysts must have a careful record so that their efforts can be
re~created for a court. In examining the data, analysts will probably
have to do some sorting--examining things that could be relevant and
by-passing the unrelated items. Only rarely will they be allowed to or
even want to read everything on the computer system being searched. Even
so, caution is advised, because directory headings and file names may
often be misleading.
In addition to searching by file, sub-directory, or directory, the power
of the computer allows analysts to design a limited search in other ways
as well. Computer experts can search data for specific names (like names
of clients, co~conspirators, or victims), words (like "drugs," "tax," or
"hacking"), places (either geographic locations or electronic ones), or
any combination of them. As legal researchers know, if the keyword search
is well defined, it can be the most efficient way to find the needle in
the haystack. But unless analysts are working from a tip and know how the
data is organized, there will probably be some trial and error before
they can find the key words, names, or places. In addition, technical
problems may complicate a keyword search. For example, encryption,
compression, graphics, and certain software formatting schemes may leave
data difficult to search in this fashion.
In the list of files contained in a directory or sub-directory, there
will be other kinds of information that may indicate whether a particular
file should be searched. The names of files in a directory often carry
extensions that indicate what sort of file is or what it does. These file
extensions are often associated with common applications software, such
as spreadsheets (that could hold accounting data), databases (that can
have client information), word processing (which could hold any sort of
alphanumeric text), or graphics. There will also be a date and time
listed for every file created. Although this information can easily be
altered and may be misleading, in some cases it may accurately reflect
the last time the file was revised.
Further, the kind of software found loaded on a computer may reveal how
the computer has been used. If there is communications software, for
example, the computer may have been used to send incriminating data to
another computer system at another location. A modem or other evidence of
remote access should also tip off the searcher to this possibility, which
may expand the investigation and create a need for a new warrant. For
example, the original search may disclose phone bills indicating frequent
long-distance calls to one particular number. If a call to this number
reveals a modem tone, then further investigation would be warranted.
Clearly, the person conducting a computer search should have high-level
technical skills to ensure success. Moreover, a well-meaning investigator
with amateur skills could inadvertently, but irretrievably, damage the
data. When in doubt, rely only on experts.
4. Discovering the Unexpected
a. Items Different from the Description in the Warrant
The Fourth Amendment requires specific descriptions of the places,
people, and things to be searched as well as the items to be seized.
Specificity has two aspects--particularity and overbreadth.
"Particularity" is about detail: the warrant must clearly describe what
it seeks. "Breadth" is about scope: the warrant cannot include items for
which there is no probable cause. Together, the particularly and breadth
limitations prevent general searches of a person's properly. Thus,
generic classifications in a warrant are acceptable only when a more
precise description is not possible. In Re Grand Jury Subpoenas, 926 F.2d
847, 856-7 (9th Cir. 1991).
Despite defense objections, the court upheld the seizure of computer
disks not named in the warrant in United States v. Musson, 650 F. Supp.
525, 532 (D. Colo. 1986). The warrant in that case authorized agents to
seize various specific records, and the court reasoned that because of
the changing technology, the government could not necessarily predict
what form the records would take. See also United States v. Reyes, 798
F.2d 380, 383 (10th Cir. 1986); United States v. Lucas, 932 F.2d 1210,
1216 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 399 (1991). In these days, the
safest course is always to assume that particular, clearly described
"records" or "documents" may be in electronic form and to provide for
this possibility in the warrant. (See "SAMPLE COMPUTER LANGUAGE FOR
SEARCH WARRANTS," APPENDIX A, p. 125.)
Other courts, however, have suppressed the results of search warrants
which broadly covered electronic "records" in form, but were too vague
about their content. In Application of Lafayette Academy, Inc., 610 F.2d
1 (1st Cir. 1979), the court struck a warrant which expressly authorized
the seizure of computer tapes, disks, operation manuals, tape logs, tape
layouts, and tape printouts. Although the warrant specified that the
items must also be evidence of criminal fraud and conspiracy, that limit
on content was not sufficiently particular to save the evidence. Id. at
3. See also Voss v. Bergsgaard, 774 F.2d 402, 404-5 (10th Cir. 1985).
If agents have authority to search the data in a computer or on a disk
and find it has been encrypted, how should they proceed--both legally and
Although an encrypted computer file has been analogized to a locked file
cabinet (because the owner is attempting to preserve secrecy), it is also
analogous to a document written in a language which is foreign to the
reader. As both of these metaphors demonstrate, the authority granted by
the warrant to search for and seized encrypted information also brings
the implied authority to decrypt: to "break the lock" on the cabinet or
to "translate" the document. Indeed, a warrant to seize a car and its
contents implicitly authorizes agents to unlock it.
Of course, the rule may be different if the search is based upon consent.
A court might well find that a target who has encrypted his data and has
not disclosed the necessary password has tacitly limited the scope of his
consent. In that case, the better practice is to ask explicitly for
consent to search the encrypted material, as well as the password. If the
target refuses, agents should obtain a warrant for the encrypted data.
In United States v. David, 756 F. Supp. 1385 (D. Nev. 1991), the
defendant was cooperating with the government by giving them drug-dealing
information from encrypted files in his computer memo book. During one
interview, the agent learned the defendant's password by standing over
his shoulder and watching as he typed it. Later, when the defendant
stopped cooperating and started destroying information in the notebook,
the agent seized it and used the defendant's password to access the
remaining information. The court reasoned that the agent's learning the
password was like his picking up the key to the container. When the
defendant withdrew his consent to give more information from the memo
book, the act which required a warrant was looking inside the
container--whether locked or unlocked--not the acquisition or even the
use of the key. If the agent did not have authority to search the data,
then knowing the password would not confer it. Id. at 1391. Conversely,
if the agent does have a warrant for the data, she may break the "lock"
to search it. For more comment on the consent issues in the David case,
see the discussion at p. 14.
As a practical matter, getting past the encryption may not be easy, but
there are several approaches to try. First of all, the computer crime lab
or the software manufacturer may be able to assist in decrypting the
file. Investigators should not be discouraged by claims that the password
"can't be broken," as this may simply be untrue. Some can be done easily
with the right software. If that fails, there may be clues to the
password in the other evidence seized--stray notes on hardware or desks;
scribbles in the margins of manuals or on the jackets of disks. Agents
should consider whether the suspect or someone else will provide the
password if requested. In some cases, it might be appropriate to compel a
third party who may know the password (or even the suspect) to disclose
it by subpoena (with limited immunity, if appropriate).
H. DECIDING WHETHER TO CONDUCT THE SEARCH ON-SITE OR TO REMOVE HARDWARE
TO ANOTHER LOCATION
It is possible for analysts to search for electronic evidence in several
places: on-site, at an investigative agency field office, or at a
laboratory. The key decision is whether to search at the scene or
somewhere else, since an off~-site search will require packing and moving
the property and may constitute a greater intrusion on the property
rights of the computer owner/user.6 In addressing this issue, it is
necessary to consider many factors such as the volume of evidence, the
scope of the warrant, and the special problems that may arise when
attempting to search computers.
Although it may, practically speaking, be necessary to remove the
computer in order to search it, that logistical reality does not expand
the theoretical basis of probable cause. This is a completely separate
issue, and agents must not write broad warrants simply because, in
reality, it will be necessary to seize the entire filing cabinet or
computer. Rather, they should draft the warrant for computer records as
specifically as possible (akin to a search warrant papers in a file
cabinet) by focusing on the content of the record. Then, as a separate
logical step, they should address the practical aspects of each case:
whenever searching data "containers" on site would be unreasonable,
agents should explain in the affidavit why this is true and ask for
permission to seize the containers in order to find the relevant
documents. (See "DRAFTING A WARRANT TO SEIZE INFORMATION: Describing the
Items to be Seized," infra p. 97.) (If the particular computer storage
devices which contain the evidence may also hold electronic mail
protected by 18 U.S.C. 2701, et seq., see STORED ELECTRONIC
COMMUNICATIONS," infra p. 85. If they may contain material covered by the
Privacy Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa, see "THE PRIVACY PROTECTION
ACT," infra p. 72.)
1. Seizing Computers because of the Volume of Evidence
Since any document search can be a time-consuming process, cases
discussing file cabinet searches are helpful. Although not technically
complex, it can take days to search a file cabinet, and courts have
sustained off-site searches when they are "reasonable under the
circumstances." The key issues here are: (1) how extensive is the
warrant and (2) what type of place is to be searched.
6. If hardware is going to be removed from the site, refer to the
suggestions on packing and moving hardware, supra p. 31.
a. Broad Warrant Authorizes Voluminous Seizure of Documents
In determining whether agents may take documents from the scene for later
examination, they must consider the scope of the warrant. When the
warrant directs agents to seize broad categories of records, or even all
records (because the suspect's business is completely criminal or
infected by some pervasive, illegal scheme), then it is not difficult to
argue all papers and storage devices should be seized. In these cases,
courts have supported the carting off of whole file cabinets containing
pounds of unsorted paper. U.S. Postal Service v. C.E.C. Services, 869
F.2d 184, 187 (2d Cir. 1989); United States v. Sawyer, 799 F.2d 1494,
1508 (11th Cir. 1986), cert. denied sub nom. Leavitt v. U.S. , 479 U.S.
1069 (1987). "When there is probable cause to seize all [items], the
warrant may be broad because it is unnecessary to distinguish things that
may be taken from things that must be left undisturbed." U.S. v.
Bentley, 825 F.2d 1104, 1110 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 484
U.S. 901 (1987). In such cases, it is not necessary to carefully sort
through documents at the scene to insure that the warrant has been
This rationale has been extended to computers. In U.S. v. Henson, 848
F.2d 1374 (6th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1005 (1989), agents
searched several used car dealerships for evidence of an interstate
odometer roll-back scheme. The warrant authorized agents to seize, among
other things, "modules, modems and connectors, computer, computer
terminals, hard copy user documentation pertaining to files and/or
programs, cables, printers, discs, floppy discs, tapes, vendor phone
numbers, all original and backup tapes and discs, any other informational
data input, all vendor manuals for hardware and software, printouts...."
Id. at 1382. The warrant did not require on-site sorting, and the
defendants later accused agents of going on a "seizing frenzy." The
court, however, sustained the search, observing that the extensive
seizures were authorized by the warrant, and the warrant was broad
because so was the criminality. The court relied on the rule of
reasonableness in concluding that officers were right not to try to sort
through everything at the scene. Since the extensive seizure of records
was authorized by the terms of the warrant, it was inevitable that the
officers would seize documents that were not relevant to the proceedings
at hand. We do not think it is reasonable to have required the officers
to sift through the large mass of documents and computer files found in
the Hensons' office, in an effort to segregate those few papers that were
outside the warrant.
Id. at 1383-4 (emphasis added).
Although the Henson defendants argued that agents seized items not
covered by the warrant, this did not invalidate the search. As noted by
A search does not become invalid merely because some items not covered by
a warrant are seized.... Absent flagrant disregard for the limitations
of a search warrant, the items covered by the warrant will be admissible.
Id. at 1383 (citations omitted). See also U.S. v. Snow, 919 F.2d 1458,
1461 (10th Cir. 1990).
The Eleventh Circuit expressed a similar rule of reasonableness in United
States v. Wuagneux, 683 F.2d 1343, 1353 (11th Cir. 1982), cert. denied,
464 U.S. 814 (1983). In Wuagneux, a dozen agents searched the records of
a business for a day and a half, and seized between 50,000 and 100,000
documents (approximately one to two percent of those on the premises).
Defendants complained that the agents should not have removed whole files
or folders in order to take a particular document, but the court
disagreed: "To require otherwise `would substantially increase the time
required to conduct the search, thereby aggravating the intrusiveness of
the search,' " citing United States v. Beusch, 596 F.2d 871, 876-7 (9th
Cir. 1979). The Eighth Circuit reached the same conclusion in Marvin v.
U.S. , 732 F.2d 669 (8th Cir. 1984), where agents searched a clinic for
financial information related to tax fraud. The agents seized many files
without examining the contents at the scene, intending to copy and sort
them later. Although the agents seized some files that were completely
outside the warrant, the district court's remedy, upheld on appeal, was
to order return of the irrelevant items. The agents' decision not to comb
through all the files at the scene, the court noted, was "prompted
largely by practical considerations and time constraints." Id. at 675.
Accord Naugle v. Witney, 755 F. Supp. 1504, 1516 (D. Utah 1990)(Removing
an entire filing cabinet, including items not described in the warrant,
was reasonable since the alternative would require officers to remain on
the premises for days, a result less reasonable and more intrusive.)
b. Warrant is Narrowly Drawn but Number of Documents to be Sifted
through is Enormous
The more difficult cases are those in which the sought-after evidence is
far more limited and the description in the warrant is (and should be)
more limited as well. "When the probable cause covers fewer documents in
a system of files, the warrant must be more confined and tell the
officers how to separate the documents to be seized from others." United
States v. Bentley, supra, at 1110.
The problem of the narrowly drawn, tightly focused warrant is illustrated
by U.S. v. Tamura, 694 F.2d 591 (9th Cir. 1982). Because agents knew
exactly what records they sought at a particular business, they were able
(and it was reasonable for them) to draft the warrant very specifically.
was much easier to describe the records than to find them, especially
when the company employees refused to help. In the end, the agents simply
took all the records including eleven boxes of computer printouts, 34
file drawers of vouchers, and 17 drawers of cancelled checks. Unlike most
other cases that address these issues, this court faced a seizure where
most of the documents taken were outside the warrant. It concluded,
therefore, that "the wholesale seizure for later detailed examination of
records not described in a warrant is significantly more intrusive, and
has been characterized as `the kind of investigatory dragnet that the
Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent.'" Id. at 595 (citations
omitted). Although the court found reversal was not compelled (because
the government had been "motivated by considerations of practicality"),
it also found this a "close case." Their advice for law enforcement is
In the comparatively rare instances where documents are so intermingled
that they cannot feasibly be sorted on site, we suggest that the
Government and law enforcement officials generally can avoid violating
Fourth Amendment rights by sealing and holding the documents pending
approval by a magistrate of a further search, in accordance with the
procedures set forth in the American Law Institute's Model Code of
Pre-Arraignment Procedure. If the need for transporting the documents is
known to the officers prior to the search, they may apply for specific
authorization for large-scale removal of material, which should be
granted by the magistrate issuing the warrant only where on-site sorting
is infeasible and no other practical alternative exists.
Id. at 595-6 (footnote omitted).
c. Warrant Executed in the Home
When a search is conducted at a home instead of a business, courts seem
more understanding of an agent's predilections to seize now and sort
later. In United States v. Fawole, 785 F.2d 1141, 1144 (4th Cir. 1986),
ten agents had searched the defendant's home for three and a half hours
removing, among other things, 350 documents. Almost half of those papers
were in a briefcase, which the agents seized without sorting. Although
many things in the briefcase
were outside the scope of the warrant, the court found that, under the
circumstances, the seizure did not amount to a general, exploratory
rummaging in a person's belongings.
Even more extensive were the seizures in United States v. Santarelli,
778 F.2d 609 (11th Cir. 1985). In that case, agents searched the home of
a suspected loanshark, confiscating the entire contents of a four-drawer
file cabinet. In the end, they left with eight large boxes of items which
they inventoried at the local FBI office. When the defendant objected to
this process, the court strongly disagreed:
Given the fact that the search warrant entitled the agents to search for
documents .... it is clear that the agents were entitled to examine each
document in the bedroom or in the filing cabinet to determine whether it
constituted evidence.... It follows that Santarelli would have no cause
to object if the agents had entered his home to examine the documents and
remained there as long as the search required. The district court
estimated that a brief examination of each document would have taken
several days. Under these circumstances, we believe that the agents acted
reasonably when they removed the documents to another location for
subsequent examination.... [T]o require an on-premises examination under
such circumstances would significantly aggravate the intrusiveness of the
search by prolonging the time the police would be required to remain in
Id. at 615-6 (citation omitted).
d. Applying Existing Rules to Computers
Clearly, the Tamura court could not have anticipated that the explosion
in computers would result in the widespread commingling of documents.
While computers are often set up with directories and subdirectories
(much like a file cabinet is set up with file folders), many users put
data on disks in random fashion. Thus, a particular letter or file could
be anywhere on a hard disk or in a box of floppies.
Most important, all of the file-cabinet cases discussed above implicitly
rely on the premise that "documents" are readily accessible and
ascertainable items; that any agent can find them and (unless the subject
is quite technical) can read, sort, and copy those covered by warrant.
The biggest problem in the paper cases is time, the days it takes to do a
painstaking job. But computer searches have added a formidable new
barrier, because searching and seizing are no longer as simple as opening
a file cabinet drawer. When agents seize data from computer storage
devices, they will need technical skill just to get the file drawer open.
While some agents will be "computer literate," only a few will be
expert; and none can be expert on every sort of system. Courts have not
yet addressed this reality. In the meantime, search warrant planning in
every computer case should explore whether agents will ask for off-site
search authority in the warrant application.
2. Seizing Computers because of Technical Concerns
a. Conducting a Controlled Search to Avoid Destroying Data
The computer expert who searches a target's computer system for
information may need to know about specialized hardware, operating
systems, or applications software just to get to the information. For
example, an agent who has never used Lotus 1-2-3 (a spreadsheet program)
will not be able to safely retrieve and print Lotus 1-2-3 files. If the
agent entered the wrong computer command, he could unwittingly alter or
destroy the data on the system. This sort of mistake not only alters
evidence, but could create problems for the system's owner as well. Since
it is the government's responsibility to recover evidence without
altering data, the safest course is to rely on experts working in
Additionally, savvy computer criminals may know how to trip-wire their
computers with "hot keys" or other self-destruct programs that could
erase vital evidence if the system were examined by anyone other than an
expert. For example, a criminal could write a very short program that
would cause the computer to demand a password periodically and, if the
correct password is not entered within ten seconds, it would destroy data
automatically. In some cases,
valuable evidence has been lost because of the way the computers were
handled. Therefore, this concern may make it doubly important to remove
the computers, unless an expert determines that an on-site search will be
Quite obviously, some computers (such as large mainframes) are not easily
moved. And some defendants will no doubt argue that if the government can
search a mainframe computer on site, it can search PCs on site as well.
Even so, the test should not be what is arguably possible, but rather
what is the most reasonable, most reliable, and least intrusive way to
search each system. The fact that mainframes may pose unique problems
should not lead courts to adopt impractical rules for other searches.
In sum, there is ample authority to justify removing computer systems (or
the relevant parts of them) to a field office or laboratory in order to
search them for information. This is especially true where the warrant is
broad, an on-site search will be intrusive, or technical concerns warrant
moving the system to a lab. This will not always be the case, however,
and agents and their experts should explore searching on site (or making
exact copies to search later) whenever it is appropriate. Before agents
ask for authority to seize any hardware for an off-site data search, they
should analyze the reasons and set them out clearly for the magistrate.
b. Seizing Hardware and Documentation so the System Will Operate at the
With an ever-increasing array of computer components on the market--and
with existing hardware and software becoming obsolete--it may be
impossible to seize parts of a computer system (e.g., the CPU and hard
drive) and operate them at the laboratory. In fact, there may be times
when agents will need to seize every component in the computer system and
later have a laboratory computer specialist determine whether or not each
piece can be returned. Many hardware incompatibilities exist (even within
a given computer family such as IBM-compatible PCs), and the laboratory
experts may need to properly re-configure the system back at the lab in
order to read data from it.
Peripherals such as printers and special input and display devices may be
necessary to operate and display certain software applications. Agents
should attempt to learn as much about the system to be searched as
possible so that appropriate seizure decisions can be made. If certain
peripherals must be seized to insure that the data can be retrieved from
storage devices, this should be articulated in the warrant affidavit and
covered in the warrant. Then an expert should examine the seized
equipment as soon as practicable to determine whether the peripheral
devices need to be retained. This approach relies completely on the facts
of each case. It will seem reasonable and temperate when the I/O devices
seized are essential, but not when the items seized are commercially
available and the only justification for the seizure/retention is
convenience and not necessity. If in doubt, agents should seek permission
to seize the peripherals, and then insure a prompt review at the lab.
Similarly, when agents search and seize a computer system, they should
ask for authority to seize any documentation that explains the hardware
and software being seized. Documentation found at the scene may be a key
in re~assembling the computer, operating it, or using the software on the
machine properly. If the computer's user is experienced, he may have
customized the software, and the documentation may be required to
retrieve data. Although a computer lab may have or be able to obtain many
standard varieties of documentation, some of it may not be easily
available for purchase. As with hardware or software, the documentation
should not be seized unless needed and, if seized, should be returned
when no longer required.
I. EXPERT ASSISTANCE
While planning is important to the success of any search, it is critical
in searching and seizing information from computers. Agents should
determine, to the extent possible, the type of computer involved, what
operating system it uses, and whether the information sought can be
accessed by, or is controlled by, a computer literate target.
Answering these questions is key, because no expert can be expert on all
systems. Mainframes, for example, are made by various companies (e.g.,
IBM, DEC, Cray) and often run unique, proprietary operating systems. Even
the PC market offers significantly different hardware/software
configurations. Although the most common desk-top computer is an IBM or
IBM-compatible system, it runs a range of operating systems including DOS
(with or without Windows), OS/2, and UNIX. Apple Computers are also
popular and run their own unique operating system.
Computer literate targets may attempt to frustrate the proper execution
of a search warrant. For example, an ingenious owner might have installed
hidden commands that could delete important data if certain start-up
procedures are not followed. If this might be the case, experts will take
special precautions before the search: they will, for example, start (or
"boot") the computer from a "clean" system diskette in a floppy drive,
not from the operating software installed on the system. These hidden
traps, as well as passwords and other security devices, are all obstacles
that might be encountered in a search.
In sum, since computer experts cannot possibly be expert on all systems,
it is important lo have the correct expert on the scene. Knowing the type
of computer to be searched, and the type of operating system being used,
will allow the appropriate expert to be selected. This, in turn, will
streamline the search process, since the expert may be familiar with the
software and file structures on the target machine.
2. Finding Experts
Most situations will require an expert to retrieve, analyze, and preserve
data from the computers to be searched. Oftentimes the job may not be so
complex: the records may be stored with a standard brand of software
using the DOS (Disk Operating System) format. Some of the most common
software programs are WordPerfect (for text), Lotus (for spreadsheets),
and dBase (for databases). If it is more complicated than this, however,
only an expert in the hardware and software at hand should do the work.
To determine what type of expert will be needed, agents should get as
much information about the targeted system as possible. Sources like
undercover agents, informants, former employees, or mail covers can
provide information about the system at the search site. Once the
computer systems and software involved have been identified, an
appropriate expert can be found from either the federal or private
sector. Ultimately, the expert must use sound scientific techniques to
examine any computer evidence.
a. Federal Sources
The best place to find an expert may be in the investigating agency
itself. Many federal agencies have experienced people on staff who can
help quickly when the need arises, and the list at APPENDIX C provides
contact points for various agencies. If the investigating agency lacks an
expert in the particular system to be searched, other federal agencies
may be able to assist. The trick, of course, is to find the expert while
planning for the search and not to start looking after the agents execute
the warrant. Prosecutors must allow time to explore the federal network
and find the right person.
Most of the federal agencies that routinely execute search warrants for
computer evidence have analysts at central laboratories or field experts
who can search the seized computer evidence. Many of them will also work
on evidence from other federal or state agencies as time permits. It is
important to call early to get specific instructions for handling the
evidence, and these experts can provide other technical assistance as
well. For example, there are many kinds of software (both government and
private) which will help process evidence, break passwords, decrypt
files, recover hidden or deleted data, or assist investigators in other
important ways. Because these utilities are constantly changing, it is
important to consult with experts who have them and know how to use them.
Each agency organizes its computer experts differently. For example, the
Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART) is a specialized team within
the central FBI Laboratory in Washington, D.C., that examines various
types of computer evidence for FBI agents nationwide. The IRS, on the
other hand, has about seventy decentralized experts, called Seized
Computer Evidence Recovery (SCER) Specialists who work in controlled
across the country. Almost every IRS District has at least one SCER
Specialist, and many have two. The Drug Enforcement Administration's
forensic computer experts are also experienced in all phases of computer
operations related to criminal cases, including data retrieval from
damaged media and decryption. The U.S. Secret Service has approximately
twelve special agents who are members of the Electronic Crimes Special
Agent Program (ECSAP). These agents are assigned to field offices on a
regional basis and are trained in the area of computer investigations and
computer forensics. (For a list of federal sources for computer experts,
see APPENDIX C, p. 143.)
b. Private Experts
Whatever the source of a private expert, the affidavit should ask
permission to use non-law-enforcement personnel during the execution of
the search warrant. The issuing magistrate should know why an expert is
needed and what his role will be during the search. Agents must carefully
monitor the expert to insure that he does not exceed the limits described
in the search warrant. Certain experts--those not familiar with the
judicial system--are not likely to be expert on how to execute a search
warrant, protect chain-of~-custody, or resolve search issues that may
affect the evidence's admissibility at trial. Thus, a private expert
should be paired with an experienced agent every step of the way. In
addition, the expert's employment contract should address confidentiality
issues, and include a non-disclosure clause and a statement of Privacy
Act restrictions. If the contracting agency is the IRS, pay special note
to Internal Revenue Code provisions at 26 U.S.C. 6103, which address
rules for confidentiality and nondisclosure of tax return information.
(1) Professional Computer Organizations
Many professional computer organizations have members who are experts in
a wide variety of hardware and software. Computer experts from the
government are a good source for finding a private expert, for the
organizations and contacts between them change almost as fast as the
technology. Also, one advantage of using a professional organization as
the source of an expert is that
these organizations usually have members who work routinely with federal
or state law enforcement and are therefore familiar with handling
evidence and testifying.
Another source for experts is a university, especially for high-tech
crimes involving rare kinds of hardware or software. The academic
environment attracts problem-solvers who may have skills and research
contacts unavailable in law enforcement.
(3) Computer and Telecommunications Industry Personnel
In some cases, the very best expert may come from a vendor or service
provider, particularly when the case involves mainframes, networks, or
unusual systems. Many companies such as IBM and Data General employ some
experts solely to assist various law enforcement agencies on search
(4) The Victim
Finally, in some circumstances, an expert from the victim organization
may be the best choice, especially if the hardware configuration or
software applications are unique to that organization. Agents and
prosecutors must, of course, be sensitive to potential claims of bias.
Many relevant issues, such as estimates of loss, may pose a considerable
gray area. Even if the victim-expert is completely dispassionate and
neutral in her evaluation, her affiliation with and loyalty to the victim
organization may create a bias issue later at trial.
3. What the Experts Can Do
a. Search Planning and Execution
Agents and prosecutors who anticipate searching and seizing computers
should include a computer expert in the planning team as early as
possible. Experts can help immeasurably in anticipating the technical
aspects of the search. This not only makes the search smoother, it is
important information for designing the scope of the warrant. In
particular, if agents can give the expert any information about the
target's specific computer system, the expert may be better able to
predict which items can be searched at the scene, which must be seized
for later analysis, and which may be left behind.
Further, if the computer system is unusual or complex, technical experts
can be invaluable help at the scene during the search. Particularly when
evidence resides on computer networks, backup tapes, or in
custom-tailored systems, the evidence will be safest in the hands of an
b. Electronic Analysis
The experts will examine all the seized computer items (so long as they
are properly preserved and sealed) and will recover whatever evidence
they can. Most forensic computer examiners will perform at least the
following: (1) make the equipment operate properly; (2) retrieve
information; (3) unblock "deleted" or "erased" data storage devices;
(4) bypass or defeat passwords; (5) decipher encrypted data; and (6)
detect the presence of known viruses.
The data to be searched can consist of hundreds or even thousands of
files and directories. In some cases, there will be evidence in most of
the files seized, and in others, only a small fraction of them. Once the
analyst has protected the original data from change, she must begin to
search for the relevant material.
A good first step is to print out a directory of the information
contained on a hard drive or floppy disk. Directories give valuable
information about what is in the files, when they were created, and how
long they are. Of course, analysts will not entirely trust file names, as
hackers have been known to hide highly incriminating material in files
with innocuous names and misleading dates.
Once the analyst has printed a directory, he will probably log onto the
hard or floppy drive and look at each file, noting on the printed
directory (or a separate log sheet if available) the type of information
in each file and whether it appears relevant. Relevant files can be
copied onto a separate disk or printed out in hard copy. It is a good
idea always to review files from bit-stream copies (which record each
separate bit of information, including hidden files) or in "read only"
mode so that the reviewer can read the document but cannot edit it. This
way, the agents can later testify that the seized material could not have
been mistakenly altered during the review. Of course, there is more than
one "right way" to analyze electronic evidence, and experts must deal
with the circumstances of each case. Ultimately the analyst must adhere
to sound scientific protocols in recovering and examining
computer-related evidence, and keep clear and complete records of the
c. Trial Preparation
Computer forensic experts can help prosecute the case with advice about
how to present computer-related evidence in court. Many are experienced
expert witnesses and they can (1) help prepare the direct case; and (2)
anticipate and rebut defense claims. In addition, computer experts can
assist prosecutors in complying with the new federal rules pertaining to
expert witnesses, Fed. R. Evid. 16(a)(1)(E) and 16(b)(1)(C), effective
December 1, 1993. Under these rules, the government must provide, upon
request, a written summary of expert testimony which it intends to use
during its case in chief. There is a reciprocal requirement for the
summary of defense expert witness testimony, as long as the defense has
requested a summary from the government, and the government has complied.
d. Training for Field Agents
Before a computer case ever arises, experts can train agents and
prosecutors about computer search problems and opportunities. They can
teach investigators how to preserve and submit computer evidence for
examination, and many will also provide field support as time permits.
V. NETWORKS AND BULLETIN BOARDS
Electronic Bulletin Board Services (BBSs) are computers set up to serve
in the electronic world as places where users can post and read
messages--much like traditional bulletin boards. In addition, however, a
BBS may also permit users to communicate via private electronic mail, to
engage in "chat sessions" (real-time conversations where the "speakers"
talk by using their keyboards instead of their voices), to upload and
download files, and to share information on topics of common interest
(e.g., a newsletter on stamp collecting). A sysop runs the bulletin
board, and BBS users access it with their computers over regular
Some bulletin boards, known as "pirate bulletin boards," are maintained
for illegal purposes such as distributing copyrighted software, credit
card numbers, telephone access codes, and pornography. A BBS dedicated to
phone fraud is also called a "phone phreaker board," and those which
distribute child pornography and adult obscenity are called, not
surprisingly, "porn boards." The illegal material on these boards is not
protected by the First Amendment since such items are "fruits of crime"
and "contraband" and do not convey any thought, opinion, or artistic
expression. Nor can these operations claim some sort of "press
protection" for publishing these items, since the Constitution does not
shield the press against laws of general applicability. In short, the
First Amendment is not a license to commit crimes. See Securities and
Exchange Commission v. McGoff, 647 F.2d 185 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied,
452 U.S. 963 (1981); Cf. Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 833-5
(1974)(the right to speak and publish does not carry an unrestrained
right to gather information; a prison may restrict the press's access to
its inmates in accord with the state's legitimate incarceration policy
It gets more complex, however, because many bulletin boards are not
devoted solely to illegal activities, but are hybrid boards: they contain
both illegal and legal material. To complicate matters further, the
legitimate material on the board (or stored on the same computer which
runs the board) may be statutorily protected. For example, some private
electronic mail may be covered under 18 U.S.C. 2701, et seq., Stored
and Electronic Communications. (For further discussion, see "STORED
ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS," infra p. 85). Even more difficult, some
material may be specifically protected from search and seizure by a
complex statute called the Privacy Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa. In
order to understand the scope and intricacy of this statute and how it
might apply to computer searches, it helps to begin with the case which
B. THE PRIVACY PROTECTION ACT, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa
1. A Brief History of the Privacy Protection Act
On April 9, 1971, nine police officers in California responded to
Stanford University Hospital to disperse a large group of demonstrators.
The demonstrators resisted, and they ultimately attacked and injured all
nine officers. Two days later, on April 11, The Stanford Daily, a student
newspaper, carried articles and photographs devoted to the student
protest and the clash between these protestors and the police. Believing
that The Stanford Daily might possess additional photographs that would
identify other protestors, the police sought and obtained a search
warrant to search the newspaper's offices.
A month after the search, The Stanford Daily brought a civil action
alleging violations of the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In
support of their claims, the plaintiffs alleged that (1) the Fourth
Amendment forbade the issuance of search warrants for evidence in the
possession of those not suspected of criminal activity and (2) the First
Amendment prohibited the use of search warrants against members of the
press and, instead, required the use of subpoenas duces tecum. Zurcher v.
Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978). The Supreme Court disagreed with
both claims, holding that the use of a search warrant, even for the
pursuit of "mere evidence," was permitted on both non~suspect third
parties and members of the news media.
In response to Zurcher, Congress passed the Privacy Protection Act of
1980, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa (hereinafter the PPA). The purpose of this
legislation, as stated in the Senate Report, is to afford "the press and
certain other persons not suspected of committing a crime with
protections not provided currently by the Fourth Amendment." S. Rep. No.
874, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 4 (1980). As the legislative history indicates,
the purpose of this statute is to limit searches for materials held by
persons involved in First Amendment activities who are themselves not
suspected of participation in the criminal activity for which the
materials are sought, and not to limit the ability of law enforcement
officers to search for and seize materials held by those suspected of
committing the crime under investigation.7 Id. at 11.
The PPA protects two classes of materials--defined as "work product
materials" and "documentary materials"--by restricting beyond the
existing limits of the Fourth Amendment when government agents can get
warrants to search for or seize them.
It is important to note that, although victims of a search which violates
the PPA may not move to suppress the results, the statute does create
civil remedies. Moreover, the PPA specifically precludes the government
from asserting a good faith defense to civil claims, so in this respect
2000aa is a strict liability statute.
2. Work Product Materials
In general terms, the first category of protected material covers
original work in the possession of anyone (including authors and
publishers) who intends (from an objective view) to publish it. In
construing this statute, the exact language of the definitions is
important. Specifically, "work product materials" are defined in 42
U.S.C. 2000aa-7(b) as
7 The Department had previously promulgated regulations on issuing
subpoenas directly to members of the news media or indirectly for their
telephone toll records. The regulations also addressed interrogating,
indicting, or arresting members of the press. See 28 C.F.R. 50.10.
materials, other than contraband or the fruits of a crime or things
otherwise criminally possessed, or property designed or intended for use,
or which is or has been used, as the means of committing a criminal
(1) in anticipation of communicating such materials to the public, are
prepared, produced, authored, or created, whether by the person in
possession of the materials or by any other person;
(2) are possessed for the purposes of communicating such materials to the
(3) include mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or theories of the
person who prepared, produced, authored, or created such material.
When "work product materials" are involved, Title 42, Section 2000aa(a)
Notwithstanding any other law, it shall be unlawful for a government
officer or employee, in connection with the investigation or prosecution
of a criminal offense, to search for or seize any work product materials
possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to
disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar
form of public communication, in or affecting interstate or foreign
commerce. . (emphasis added). . .[unless]
(1) there is probable cause to believe that the person possessing such
materials has committed or is committing the criminal offense to which
the materials relate: Provided, however, That a government officer or
employee may not search for or seize such materials under the provisions
of this paragraph if the offense to which the materials relate consists
of the receipt, possession, communication, or withholding of such
materials or the information contained therein (but such a search or
seizure may be conducted under the provisions of this paragraph if the
offense consists of the receipt, possession, or communication of
information relating to the national defense, classified information, or
restricted data under the provisions of section 793, 794, 797, or
798 of Title 18, or section 2274, 2275 or 2277 of this title, or section
783 of Title 50); or
(2) there is reason to believe that the immediate seizure of such
materials is necessary to prevent the death of, or serious bodily injury
to, a human being.
Thus, under 2000aa(a), there are three situations in which government
agents may search for or seize these materials without running afoul of
the statute. First, the definition itself specifically excludes
contraband or the fruits or instrumentalities of a crime. 42 U.S.C.
2000aa-7(b). As the drafting Committee noted,
[T]hese kinds of evidence are so intimately related to the commission of
a crime, and so often essential to securing a conviction, that they
should be available for law enforcement purposes, and, therefore, must
fall outside the no search rule that is applied to work product.
S. Rep. 96-874, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 17, reprinted in 1980 U.S. Code
Cong. & Admin. News 3964. In BBS cases, the most common objects of the
warrant--stolen access codes, child pornography, and illegally copied
software--would clearly fall within the contraband exclusion, so the PPA
would not affect a warrant drawn for these materials.
In addition, as quoted above, the PPA creates two exceptions to the
general prohibition against seizing "work product." One excepts
situations in which life and limb are at stake. The other applies when
(1) the work product is evidence of crime, and (2) the person who
possesses the materials probably committed it. Even so, this
evidence-of-crime exception does not apply if the particular crime
"consists of the receipt, possession, communication or withholding of
such material....'' unless the work product was classified or
restricted, and the offense is specifically listed in the PPA. 42 U.S.C.
2000aa(a)(1) and (b)(1). This general evidence-of-crime exception was
codify a core principle of this section, which is to protect from search
only those persons involved in First Amendment activities who are
themselves not implicated in the crime under investigation, and not to
shield those who participate in crime.
H.R. Rep. No. 1064, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 7. To trigger the exception,
however, law enforcement officials are held to a higher-than-usual
requirement: they must show probable cause to believe the person who
holds the evidentiary materials is a suspect of the crime--the same
showing of cause required for an arrest warrant. S. Rep. No. 874, 96th
Cong., 2d Sess. 11, reprinted in 1980 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 3950,
It may, of course, be difficult to invoke this evidence-of-crime
exception, particularly at early stages of the investigation. As the
Supreme Court noted in Zurcher (and a number of commentators have
reiterated since), a search warrant is often most useful early in an
investigation when agents have probable cause to believe there is
evidence on the premises, but are not ready to arrest any particular
person. See Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. at 561; Testimony of
Richard J. Williams, Vice President, National District Attorney's
Association, in Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary, United
States Senate, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. on S. 115, S. 1790, and S. 1816 (Mar.
28, 1980) Serial No. 96-59, at 152-3.
The receiving-stolen-property exemption--which prevents agents from using
the evidence-of-crime exception when the crime is receipt, possession,
communication, or withholding of the same work product materials--was
included to prevent law enforcement officials from classifying work
product as "stolen goods" to justify seizing it. The Committee report
gave as its primary example the case of a reporter who receives an
under-the-table copy of a corporate memo discussing a defective product.
Knowing the report to be stolen, the reporter might be guilty of
receiving or possessing stolen property and thus unprotected by the PPA.
The Committee believed that it would unduly broaden the suspect exception
to use the reporter's crime of simple "possession" or "receipt" of the
materials (or the similar secondary crimes of "withholding" or
"communicating" the materials) as a vehicle for invoking the exception
when the reporter himself had not participated in the commission of the
crimes through which the materials were obtained
H. Rep. No. 1064, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 7 (emphasis added). In light of
Congress's stated concern, perhaps this counter-exception does not apply
when anything more than simple possession is involved: that is,
possession is combined with the mens rea necessary to constitute some
other offense (e.g.,
possession with intent to defraud). See 18 U.S.C. 1029(a)(3) (making it
a crime to "knowingly and with intent to defraud" possess fifteen or more
devices which are counterfeit or unauthorized access devices); 18 U.S.C.
1030(a)(6) (making it a crime to "knowingly and with intent to defraud"
traffic in any password or similar information through which a computer
may be accessed without authorization).
3. Documentary Materials
In addition to protecting work product, the PPA covers a second, larger
class of items called "documentary materials." The statute defines this
term in extraordinarily broad fashion--a definition which covers almost
all forms of recorded information which are "... possessed by a person in
connection with a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book,
broadcast, or other similar form of public communication...." 42 U.S.C.
2000aa(b) (emphasis added). Specifically, "documentary materials"
encompass materials upon which information is recorded, and includes, but is not
limited to, written or printed materials, photographs, motion picture
films, negatives, video tapes, audio tapes, and other mechanically,
magnetically or electronically recorded cards, tapes, or discs, but does
not include contraband or the fruits of a crime or things otherwise
criminally possessed, or property designed or intended for use, or which
is or has been used as, the means of committing a criminal offense.
42 U.S.C. 2000aa-7(a).
As with "work product materials," the statute excludes from the
definition of "documentary materials" any items which are contraband or
the fruits or instrumentalities of a crime. 42 U.S.C. 2000aa-7(a).
Further, the two exceptions to the work-product search prohibition,
discussed above, also apply to searches for documentary materials: they
may be searched and seized under warrant in order to (1) prevent death or
serious injury; or (2) to search for evidence of crime held by a suspect
of that crime. (This last exception includes all its attendant internal
exemptions, examined above, relating to crimes of possession or receipt.)
Additionally, the PPA allows agents to get a warrant for documentary
materials under two more circumstances found at 42 U.S.C. 2000aa(b):
(3) there is reason to believe that the giving of notice pursuant to a
subpena duces tecum would result in the destruction, alteration, or
concealment of such materials; or
(4) such materials have not been produced in response to a court order
directing compliance with a subpena duces tecum, and--
(A) all appellate remedies have been exhausted; or
(B) there is reason to believe that the delay in an investigation or
trial occasioned by further proceedings relating to the subpena would
threaten the interests of justice.
In drawing these additional exceptions, Congress anticipated some of the
factors a court might consider in determining whether relevant
documentary materials could be lost to the government. These factors
include whether there is (1) a close relationship (personal, family, or
business) between the suspect and the person who holds the material, or
(2) evidence that someone may hide, move, or destroy it. S. Rep. 96-874,
96th Cong., 2d Sess. 13, reprinted in U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 3950,
4. Computer Searches and the Privacy Protection Act
The Privacy Protection Act only applies to situations where law
enforcement officers are searching or seizing (1) work product materials
possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to
disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar
form of public communication; or (2) documentary materials possessed by a
person in connection with a purpose to disseminate to the public a
newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public
communication. 42 U.S.C.
2000aa(a) and (b). Before the computer revolution, the statute's most
obvious application was to traditional publishers, such as newspaper or
book publishers. The legislative history makes clear, however, that the
PPA was not intended to apply solely to the traditional news media but
was meant to have a more sweeping application. As then-Assistant Attorney
General for the Criminal Division Phillip B. Heymann testified:
While we considered the option of a press-only bill, this format was
rejected partially because of the extreme difficulties of arriving at a
workable definition of the press, but more importantly because the First
Amendment pursuits of others who are not members of the press
establishment are equally as important and equally as susceptible to the
chilling effect of governmental searches as are those of members of the
H. Rep. No. 1064, 96th Cong., 2d Sess., Transcript of Statement on File,
With the widespread proliferation of personal computers, desktop
publishing, and BBS services, virtually anyone with a personal computer
and modem can disseminate to other members of the public (especially
those who have appropriate hardware and software) a "newspaper ... or
other similar form of public communication." Thus, the scope of the PPA
may have been greatly expanded as a practical consequence of the
revolution in information technology--a result which was probably not
envisioned by the Act's drafters.
Before searching any BBS, therefore, agents must carefully consider the
restrictions of the PPA, along with its exceptions. Additionally, they
should include any information bearing on the applicability of this
statute (and its many exceptions and sub-exceptions) in the warrant
affidavit. That said, it is also important to recognize that not every
sysop who possesses information necessarily has an intent to disseminate
it to the public. Nor is every BBS engaged in a "similar form of public
a. The Reasonable Belief Standard
When addressing work product materials, the statute, by its terms, only
applies when the materials are possessed by a person "reasonably believed
to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book,
broadcast, or other similar form of public communication." 42 U.S.C.
2000aa(a). In non~computer contexts, the courts have concluded that it is
not enough just to possess materials a professional reporter might
possess. In addition, there must be some indication the person intended
to disseminate them. In Lambert v. Polk County, Iowa, 723 F. Supp. 128
(S.D. Iowa 1989), for example, the plaintiff Lambert captured a fatal
beating on videotape. Police investigating the incident seized the tape
from Lambert and, shortly thereafter, Lambert contracted to sell the tape
to a local television station. After the police refused to relinquish the
tape, the television station and Lambert sued for injunctive relief
claiming, among other things, a violation of 42 U.S.C. 2000aa. While the
district court granted relief on other grounds, it held that neither the
television station nor Lambert was likely to prevail on a 42 U.S.C.
2000aa claim. The television station was not the aggrieved party, and
"there was nothing about the way Lambert presented himself [to the
officers] that would have led them to reasonably believe that Lambert's
purpose was to make a dissemination of the videotape to the public."
Lambert, 723 F. Supp. at 132. But cf. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v.
United States, 713 F. Supp. 1308 (D. Minn. 1989)(plaintiffs from whom
videotapes were seized at robbery scene were successful in PPA claim
because agents apparently had independent knowledge that plaintiffs
represented the established media).
The reasonable belief standard was also important in the district court
opinion in Steve Jackson Games v. United States, 816 F. Supp. 432 (W.D.
Tex. 1993), appeal filed on other grounds, (Sept. 17, 1993). To
understand the scope of this opinion, it is important to put it in the
context of its facts. In early 1990, the United States Secret Service
began investigating potential federal computer crimes under 18 U.S.C.
1030. The Secret Service learned that a Bell South computer system had
been invaded, and that the computer hackers were attempting to decrypt
passwords which would allow them into computer systems belonging to the
Department of Defense.
During the course of this investigation, the Secret Service received
information implicating an individual who was employed by Steve Jackson
Games, a Texas company that published books, magazines, box games, and
related products. Steve Jackson Games used computers for a variety of
business purposes, including operating an electronic bulletin board
system ("BBS"). The Secret Service was informed that the suspect was one
of the sysops of the Steve Jackson Games BBS, and that he could delete
any documents or information in the Steve Jackson Games computers and
board. Even so, none of the other sysops nor the company itself was ever
a suspect in the investigation.
On February 28, 1990, the Secret Service obtained a federal warrant to
search the offices of Steve Jackson Games and to seize various computer
materials. The warrant covered:
Computer hardware * * * and computer software * * * and written material
and documents relating to the use of the computer system, documentation
relating to the attacking of computers and advertising the results of
computer attacks * * *, and financial documents and licensing information
relative to the computer programs and equipment at [the company's
offices] which constitute evidence, instrumentalities and fruits of
federal crimes, including interstate transportation of stolen property
(18 U.S.C. 2314) and interstate transportation of computer access
information (18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(6)). This warrant is for the seizure of
the above described computer and computer data and for the authorization
to read information stored and contained in the above described computer
and computer data.
The Secret Service executed the warrant on March 1, 1990. The agents
seized two of thirteen functioning computers, and one other computer that
was disassembled for repair. The Secret Service also seized a large
number of floppy disks, a printer, other computer components, and
computer software documentation. Steve Jackson Games immediately
requested the return of the seized materials, but the agency retained
most of the materials for several months before returning them. No
criminal charges were brought as a result of this investigation.
In May 1991, plaintiffs (Steve Jackson Games; the company's owner and
sole shareholder, Steve Jackson; and several individual users of the
company's BBS) filed suit against the Secret Service and the United
States, alleging violations of the Privacy Protection Act. They also
claimed violations of the Stored Electronic Communications Statute,
discussed in greater detail at "STORED ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS," infra
Following a bench trial, the court determined that the defendants had
violated the Privacy Protection Act. The court held that the materials
seized by the Secret Service (in particular, the draft of a book about to
included "work product materials" and "documentary materials" protected
by the Privacy Protection Act. The court decided that seizing these
materials did not immediately violate the statute, however, because at
the time of the seizure, the agents did not (in the language of the
statute) "reasonably believe" that Steve Jackson Games "ha[d] a purpose
to disseminate to the public a news~paper, book, broadcast, or other
similar form of public communication * * * ." This was true even though
"only a few hours of investigation" would have revealed it. Id. at 440
n.8. However, the court held that a violation did occur on the day after
the search when at least one agent learned the materials were protected
by the statute and failed to return them promptly.
b. Similar Form of Public Communication
As noted above, the PPA applies only when the materials are possessed by
a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the
public "a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public
communication." 42 U.S.C. 2000aa (emphasis added). Not every BBS will
satisfy this standard. For example, a BBS that supplies unauthorized
access codes to a small group of phone phreakers is not disseminating
information to the public, nor is it engaging in a form of public
communication similar to a newspaper. (Of course, the contraband
exception will probably also apply in such a case).
The exact scope of the PPA remains uncertain, and the recent opinion in
Steve Jackson Games does not clarify the issue. There the court found a
cognizable PPA violation arising from the Secret Service's search and
prolonged seizure of the successive drafts of a book Steve Jackson was
soon to publish. But, just as important, the court did not hold that
seizing the Steve Jackson BBS likewise violated the statute. Instead, the
court held that "[i]n any event, it is the seizure of the 'work product
materials' that leads to the liability of the United States Secret
Service and the United States in this case." 816 F. Supp at 441. Indeed,
one of the attorneys who represented Steve Jackson Games reached a
Though the results in the SJG case were very good on balance, a couple of
major BBS issues were left for better resolution on another day.... [One
issue] is the finding that SJG was a
'publisher' for purposes of the PPA. This holding ... leaves the
applicability of the PPA largely undetermined for other BBS'. Steve
Jackson Games was a print publisher, and its computers were used to
support the print publishing operation. What about BBS' that publish
their information in electronic form only? What about BBS' that do not
publish anything themselves in the traditional sense, but host public
conferences? The SJG case simply does not give guidance on when a
non-printing BBS qualifies as a publisher or journalistic operation for
purposes of PPA protection. Rose, Steve Jackson Games Decision Stops the
Insanity, Boardwatch, May 1993, at 53, 57.
c. Unique Problems: Unknown Targets and Commingled Materials
Applying the PPA to computer BBS searches is especially difficult for two
reasons. First, early in an investigation, it is often impossible to tell
whether the BBS sysop is involved in the crime under investigation. But
unless agents have probable cause to arrest the sysop at the time of the
search, the evidence-held-by-a-target exception in 42 U.S.C. 2000aa
would not apply.
Second, because most computers store thousands of pages of information,
targets can easily mix contraband with protected work product or
documentary materials. For example, a BBS trafficking in illegally copied
software (which, along with the computers used to make the copies, is
subject to forfeiture) may also be publishing a newsletter on stamp
collecting. If agents seized the computer (or even all the data), the
seizure would necessarily include both the pirated software and the
newsletter. Assuming the stamp-collectors' newsletter was completely
unrelated to the criminal copyright violations and also that it qualified
as a "similar form of public communication," the seizure might violate
the plain wording of the PPA.
There are, as yet, no cases addressing the status of PPA-protected
materials which are commingled with contraband or evidence of crime.
However, in construing the Fourth Amendment, the courts have recognized
that there is sometimes no practical alternative to seizing
non-evidentiary items and sorting them out later. See National City
Trading Corp. v. United States, 635
F.2d 1020 (2d Cir. 1980)(space used by a law office and by a targeted
business operation was so commingled that the entire suite, really being
one set of offices, was properly subject to search); United States v.
Hillyard, 677 F.2d 1336, 1340 (9th Cir. 1982)("Cases may arise in which
stolen goods are intermingled with and practically indistinguishable from
legitimate goods. If commingling prevents on site inspection, and no
practical alternative exists, the entire property may be seizable, at
least temporarily."); United States v. Tropp, 725 F. Supp. 482, 487-88
(D. Wyo. 1989)("Some evidence not pertinent to the warrant was seized ...
only because it had been commingled or misfiled with relevant documents.
That evidence was returned.... In sum, the search warrant comported with
the mandate of the Fourth Amendment and the search conducted pursuant
thereto was not unreasonable."). (For a more extensive discussion of
commingled materials and off-site searches, see "DECIDING WHETHER TO
CONDUCT THE SEARCH ON-SITE OR TO REMOVE HARDWARE TO ANOTHER LOCATION,"
supra p. 55.) Of course, these commingling cases involve the Fourth
Amendment, not 42 U.S.C. 2000aa, and it remains to be seen whether these
holdings will apply to the Privacy Protection Act
5. Approval of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Required
On September 15, 1993, Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann issued a
memorandum which requires that all applications for a warrant issued
under 42 U.S.C. 2000aa(a) must be authorized by the Assistant Attorney
General for the Criminal Division (AAG), upon the recommendation of the
U.S. Attorney or (for direct Department of Justice cases) the supervising
Department of Justice attorney.
On December 9, 1993, Jo Ann Harris, the Assistant Attorney General (AAG)
for the Criminal Division, delegated this authority by memorandum to the
Deputy Assistant Attorneys General of the Criminal Division. There are
emergency procedures for expediting the approval in cases which require
it. All requests for authorization--emergency or routine--should be
directed to the Chief, Legal Support Unit of the Office of Enforcement
Operations in the Criminal Division (202-514-0856).
If agents or prosecutors are planning a search and seizure of electronic
evidence in a case in which the PPA may apply, we urge them to contact
Computer Crime Unit (202-514-1026) immediately to discuss the
investigation and any new legal developments in this area.
C. STORED ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS
There are special statutory rules protecting some electronic
communications in electronic storage. Anyone who provides an electronic
communication service or remote computing services to the public, is
prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 2702 from voluntarily disclosing the contents of
the electronic communications it stores or maintains on the service. A
"remote computing service" means the provision to the public of computer
storage or processing services by means of an electronic communications
system. 18 U.S.C. 2711(2).
It is not entirely clear what sorts of electronic communications services
will be found to provide "public" service. Generally speaking, "public"
means available to all who seek the service, even if there is some
requirement, such as a fee. It is probably safe to assume that any
service permitting "guest" or "visitor" access is "public." On the other
hand, the term should not be read to cover business networks open only to
employees for company business. If that business network is connected to
the Internet (an extensive world-wide network), it may be part of a
"public" system, but this does not necessarily mean that the corporate
LAN (local-area network) becomes a "public" service.
There are several important exceptions to 2702's non-disclosure rule,
including (1) a provision under 18 U.S.C. 2702(b)(3) allowing a person
or entity to disclose the contents of a communication with the lawful
consent of the originator, an addressee, or the intended recipient of
such communication (or the subscriber in the case of a remote computing
service), and (2) a provision under 18 U.S.C. 2702(b)(6) allowing
disclosure to a law enforcement agency if the contents were inadvertently
obtained and appear to pertain to the commission of a crime.
For the government to obtain access to a "stored electronic
communication," it must follow the dictates of 18 U.S.C. 2703, which
sets out different rules depending upon how long the particular
communication has been in electronic storage. That section provides that
"a governmental entity
may require the disclosure by a provider of electronic communication
service of the contents of an electronic communication, that is in
electronic storage ... for one hundred and eighty days or less, only
pursuant to a warrant issued under the Federal Rules of Criminal
Procedure or equivalent state warrant." 18 U.S.C. 2703(a) (emphasis
added). If the information has been stored for more than 180 days,
prosecutors may use either a Rule 41 search warrant (without notice to
the customer or subscriber) or an administrative subpoena, grand jury
subpoena, trial subpoena, or a court order pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 2703(d)
(with notice to the customer or subscriber).
The two terms underlined above merit further discussion. First of all, it
is important to note that not all electronically stored communications
are covered by this section. The electronic communication must be
transmitted on a system that affects interstate or foreign commerce, 18
U.S.C. 2510(12), and must be in electronic storage. "Electronic storage"
means any temporary, intermediate storage of a wire or electronic
communication incidental to the electronic transmission thereof or any
backup of this communication. 18 U.S.C. 2510(17).
To understand the importance of this definition, it is critical to know
how electronic mail works. Generally speaking, e-mail messages are not
transmitted directly from the sender's machine to the recipient's
machine; rather, the e-mail message goes from the sending machine to an
e-mail server where it is stored (i.e., kept in "electronic storage"). A
message is then sent from the server to the addressee indicating that a
message for the addressee has been stored. The actual message remains on
the server, however, until the addressee retrieves it by having a copy
sent to his machine. Often, both the sender and receiver can delete the
e-mail from the server.
Section 2703 protects the electronic communication while it is stored in
the server in this intermediate state.8 Once a message is opened,
however, its storage is no longer "temporary" nor "incidental to. .
.transmission," and it thus takes on the legal character of all other
stored data. Therefore, the statute
8 When a sysop backs up the mail server to protect against system
failure, all e-mails stored on the server will be copied. Thus, if the
e-mail is later deleted from the server, the backup copy remains. The
statute protects this copy as well. 18 U.S.C. 2510(17)(B).
does not apply to all stored communications, such as word processing
files residing on a hard drive, even when these files were once
transmitted via e~-mail.
The other highlighted term--"require the disclosure"--seems to suggest
that 2703 only applies when the government seeks to compel the service
provider to produce the electronic mail, not when government agents
actually seize it. With this in mind, the statute's cross-reference to
Rule 41 is confusing, because Rule 41 authorizes the government to
"seize" items, not to "require [their] disclosure." To speak in terms of
requiring the disclosure of electronic mail, rather than of seizing it,
seems to connote a process of serving subpoenas, not of executing
On the other hand, Congress may have simply assumed that most system
providers would be disinterested in the "search," and that, as a
practical matter, the service provider would actually retrieve and turn
over to the government those files of suspect-users listed in the
warrant. In mentioning Rule 41, Congress may not have been focusing on
who would actually do the retrieval, but rather on what level of proof
would be required before electronic communications in electronic storage
could be procured for a criminal investigation. Therefore, the statute's
references to warrants and Rule 41 seem designed to insure that, no
matter who actually searches the system, the government will be held to a
probable-cause standard--even if the system provider would have been just
as willing to honor a subpoena. See H.R. Rep. No. 647, 99th Cong., 2d
Sess., at 68 ("The Committee required the government to obtain a search
warrant because it concluded that the contents of a message in storage
were protected by the Fourth Amendment.... To the extent that the record
is kept beyond [180 days] it is closer to a regular business record
maintained by a third party and, therefore, deserving of a different
standard of protection.").
Indeed, it is entirely reasonable to read this statute as Congress's
effort to regulate primarily the duties of service providers to protect
the privacy of their subscribers in regard to all third parties,
including law enforcement. The statute may not have fully contemplated
those cases in which the system provider (rather than the subscriber) is,
or may be, implicated in the criminal investigation.
There is, unfortunately, no case law clearly addressing this issue. In a
recent civil suit, the government was held liable for seizing electronic
an electronic bulletin board service (BBS), even though the agents had a
valid warrant.9 Steve Jackson Games. Inc. v. U.S. Secret Service, 816 F.
Supp. 432 (W.D. Tex. 1993), appeal filed on other grounds, (Sept. 17,
1993). In that case, plaintiffs sued following a search by the Secret
Service of computers and other electronic storage devices which belonged
to the company. (For a more complete description of the facts of the
case, see the discussion at p. 80.) One of the computers seized by the
Secret Service was the computer used by Steve Jackson Games to operate
its BBS. The hard disk of the BBS computer contained a number of private
e-mail messages, some of which had not yet been accessed by their
addressees. The district court found that the Secret Service read e-mail
messages on the computer and subsequently deleted certain information and
communications, either intentionally or accidentally, before returning
the computer to Steve Jackson Games. Id. at 441.
Here, the court held
that the Secret Service "exceeded the Government's authority under the
statute" by seizing and examining the contents of "all of the electronic
communications stored in the [company's] bulletin board" without
complying with the statute's requirements for government access. The
court's opinion never addressed, however, the interplay between 2703 and
Rule 41, so it sheds no light on the proper interpretation of 2703(a).
In fact, the court never cited 2703(a) at all. Instead, the court
discussed the requirements of 2703(d), a provision that allows the
government to get a court order, upon a showing that the communication
sought is relevant to a legitimate law enforcement inquiry, when the
communication has been in storage more than 180 days or is held by a
remote computing service. (The court did not find how long the searched
communications were in storage, but did hold that Steve Jackson was a
remote computing service.) Even under this lesser standard-- 2703(a)
requires a search warrant based upon probable cause--the court held that
the government's search was improper, noting that the government did not
advise the magistrate, by affidavit or otherwise, that the BBS contained
private electronic communications between users, nor how the disclosure
of the contents of those communications related to the investigation.
In most cases, of course, the electronic communications sought will be in
storage 180 days or less, and, therefore, may be obtained "only pursuant
to a warrant." 18 U.S.C. 2703(a)(emphasis added). When preparing a
9 Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 2707(d), a good faith reliance on a court
warrant is a complete defense to any civil action. The court summarily
rejected the defense, stating that it "declines to find this defense by a
preponderance of the evidence in this case." Id. at 443.
search a computer, investigators should specifically indicate whether
there is electronic mail on the target computer. If the agents intend to
read those electronic communications, the warrant should identify whose
mail is to be read, and establish that those electronic communications
are subject to search under Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(b) (Search and Seizure,
Property Which May Be Seized With a Warrant).
[no page 90]
VI. DRAFTING THE WARRANT
A. DRAFTING A WARRANT TO SEIZE HARDWARE
If a computer component is contraband, an instrumentality of the offense,
or evidence, the focus of the warrant should be on the computer component
itself and not on the information it contains. The warrant should be as
specific as possible about which computer components to seize and,
consistent with other types of warrants, it should describe the item to
be seized in as much detail as possible, especially if there may be two
or more computers at the scene. Include, where possible, the
manufacturer, model number, and any other identifying information
regarding the device. (For further information, see "SAMPLE COMPUTER
LANGUAGE FOR SEARCH WARRANTS," APPENDIX A, p. 125.)
It may also be appropriate-to seek a "no-knock" warrant in cases where
knocking and announcing may cause (1) the officer or any other individual
to be hurt; (2) the suspect to flee; or (3) the evidence to be destroyed.
(See "Seeking Authority for a No-Knock Warrant," infra p. 100.)
In computer cases, the evidence is especially perishable, and agents
should never underestimate the subjects of the investigation. They may be
knowledgeable about telecommunications and may have anticipated a search.
As a result, computers and memory devices on telephone speed dialers may
be "booby-trapped" to erase if they are improperly entered or if the
power is cut off.
B. DRAFTING A WARRANT TO SEIZE INFORMATION
1. Describing the Place to be Searched
Until recently, when a warrant specified where a search was to occur, the
exercise was bound by physical laws: agents took objects they could carry
from places they could touch. But computers create a "virtual" world
where data exists "in effect or essence though not in actual fact or
form." The American Heritage Dictionary, (2d ed. 1983).
Rule 41(a) failed to anticipate the creation of this "virtual" world. By
its very terms, a warrant may be issued "for a search of property ...
within the district." Specifically, it provides that,
Upon the request of a federal law enforcement officer or an attorney for
the government, a search warrant authorized by this rule may be issued
(1) by a federal magistrate, or a state court of record within the
federal district, for a search of property or for a person within the
district and (2) by a federal magistrate for a search of property or for
a person either within or outside the district if the property or person
is within the district when the warrant is sought but might move outside
the district before the warrant is executed.
Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(a)(emphasis added).
In a networked environment, however, the physical location of stored
information may be unknown. For example, an informant indicates that the
business where he works has a duplicate set of books used to defraud the
Internal Revenue Service. He has seen these books on his computer
terminal in his Manhattan office. Based upon this information, agents
obtain a warrant in the Southern District of New York authorizing a
search for, and seizure of, these records. With the informant's help,
agents access his computer workstation, bring up the incriminating
documents, and copy them to a diskette.
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the agents, prosecutor, or informant, the
file server that held those documents was physically located in another
office, building, district, state, or country.10
There are, under Rule 41, at least three variations on this problem.
First, information is stored off-site, and agents know this second site
is within the same district. Second, information is stored off-site, but
this second site is outside the district. Third, information is stored
off-site, but its location is unknown.
a. General Rule: Obtain a Second Warrant
Whenever agents know that the information is stored at a location other
than the one described in the warrant, they should obtain a second
warrant. In some cases, that will mean going to another federal
district--nearby or across the country. If the data is located overseas,
the Criminal Division's Office of International Affairs (202-514-0000)
and our foreign law enforcement counterparts can assist in obtaining and
executing the foreign warrant. The Computer Crime Unit (202-514-1026) can
help in expediting international computer crime investigations.
b. Handling Multiple Sites within the Same District
Assuming that the server was simply in another office on the same floor,
the warrant might well be broad enough to cover the search. Indeed, even
with physical searches, courts have sometimes allowed a second but
related search to be covered by one warrant. In United States v. Judd,
687 F. Supp. 1052, 1057-9 (N.D. Miss. 1988), aff'd 889 F.2d 1410 (5th
Cir. 1989), cert. denied,
10 In this example, the storage of information in an out-of-district
server was fortuitous; i.e., a product of the network architecture. In
fact, hackers may deliberately store their information remotely. This
allows them to recover after their personal computers fail (essentially
by creating off-site backup copies). Additionally, if agents seize a
hacker's personal computer, no evidence will be found, and the hacker can
still copy or destroy the remotely stored data by accessing it from
494 U.S. 1036 (1989), the FBI executed a search warrant for records at
Address #1, and learned that additional records were located at Address
#2. Without obtaining a second warrant, and relying only on the first,
the agents entered Address #2 and seized the additional records.
The district court framed the question like this: was the partially
incorrect description in the warrant sufficient to include both business
addresses, which in this case, happened to be in the same building? The
court held that since Address #2 was "part" of Address #l, and since they
were both used for the business pursuits of the same company, the search
was proper. See also United States v. Prout, 526 F.2d 380, 388 (5th Cir.)
(search of adjacent separate apartment that was omitted from the warrant
was proper), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 840 (1976).
It becomes more problematic when the server is in another building, one
clearly not described in the warrant. In situations where a second
warrant was not obtained, there is still an argument that remotely
accessing information from a computer named in the warrant does not
violate Fourth Amendment law. See discussion of United States v.
c. Handling Multiple Sites in Different Districts
What if, unbeknownst to the agents executing the search warrant, the
property seized was located in another district? Although the defense
could argue that the court lacked jurisdiction to issue the warrant, the
agents executing the warrant never left the district in which the warrant
was issued. Moreover, in some cases, it may be difficult, if not
impossible, to ascertain the physical location of a given file server and
obtain the evidence any other way. In these cases, prosecutors should
argue that the warrant authorized the seizure.
If agents have reason to believe the second computer may be in a
different district, however, the issue should be addressed with the
magistrate. While some courts may strictly construe the language of Rule
41 and require data to be retrieved only from the district where it
permanently resides, other courts may follow the logic of the recent
Second Circuit case United States v. Rodriguez, 968 F.2d 130 (2d Cir.),
cert. denied, 113 S. Ct. 140 (1992). Although that case addressed the
issue of "place" under the wiretap statute (18
U.S.C. 2518) and not under Rule 41, the constraints of the statute were
quite similar. ("Upon such application the judge may enter an ex parte
order ... approving interception ... within the territorial jurisdiction
of the court in which the judge is sitting.... ")
In Rodriguez, the Second Circuit held that a wiretap occurs in two places
simultaneously: the place where the tapped phone is located and the place
where law enforcement overhears it. If those two places are in different
jurisdictions, a judge in either one can authorize the interception. In
this case, the DEA was tapping several phones in New York from its
Manhattan headquarters. In addition, they tapped a phone in New Jersey by
leasing a phone line from the service carrier and running it to the same
New York office from which they monitored all the calls on all the lines.
The court cited "sound policy reasons" for allowing one court to
authorize all the taps, since all the reception and monitoring occurred
in that same jurisdiction.
If the DEA can lease a phone line running from New Jersey to New York in
order to consolidate its efforts, courts may also find it completely
reasonable lo conclude that computer network data searches, like
telecommunications interceptions, can occur in more than one place.
d. Information at an Unknown Site
Unfortunately, it may be impossible to isolate the location of
information. What then? Does a warrant authorizing the search and seizure
of one computer automatically allow agents to search and seize any data
that it has sent to other computers? If the original warrant does not
allow investigators to physically enter another building and search
another computer, does it permit them to "go" there electronically, using
as their vehicle only the computer that they have been authorized to
search? What if the other computer is physically located in another
district? Finally, if the warrant does not authorize seizing the off-site
data (no matter how it is obtained), are there circumstances under which
it could be taken without a warrant?
If agents have reason to believe there is off-site storage but no way to
identify the site, they should tell the magistrate. Of course, the
standard to use in evaluating a description in the warrant is whether
"the description is such
that the officer with a search warrant can, with reasonable effort
ascertain and identify the place intended." Steele v. United States, 267
U.S. 498, 503 (1925). See also United States v. Darensbourg, 520 F.2d
985, 987 (5th Cir. 1975), quoting United States v. Sklaroff, 323 F. Supp.
296, 321 (S.D. Fla. 1971).
Drawing upon Steele, it may be prudent for the warrant to specifically
include any data stored off-site in devices which the subject computer
has been configured by its operator to readily access, and which have
been regularly used as a component of the subject computer. This is more
likely to be upheld if the government has reason to believe the suspect
is using an off-site computer and has no way to determine where it is,
either geographically or electronically, until the suspect's computer is
examined. In such cases, the affidavit should indicate why a complete
address is not available, including any attempts that have been made to
get the information (e.g., informants, undercover agents, pen registers,
electronic or video surveillance) on the subject computer. It will be
important to show a clear relationship between the computer described in
the warrant and the second computer at the different location. If the
second computer is somewhere in the same district, that also holds the
second data search closer to the physical terms of Rule 41.
e. Information/Devices Which Have Been Moved
What happens if the targets: (1) move computers and storage devices (disk
drives, floppies, etc.) between two or more districts (e.g., a laptop
computer); or (2) transmit data to off-site devices located in another
Under Rule 41(a)(2), a magistrate in one district can issue a warrant to
be executed in another district provided the property was "within"
District A when the warrant was issued. Again, this rule is relatively
easy to apply when physical devices are the object of the search. But how
does that rule apply to electronic data? If a suspect creates data in
District A and uploads11 that data
11 "Upload" means to transfer data from a user's system to a remote
computer system. Wehster's, supra. Of course, only a copy is transferred,
and the original remains on the user's machine. It may be significant to
search for the uploaded data even if the original has been seized. For
example, the user may have altered the original.
to a computer in District B, has he "moved" it between districts, thus
authorizing a District A magistrate to issue a warrant for a search of
the District B computer, even though the District B computer was never
physically transported from or even located in District A?
The key to resolving these issues is understanding what agents are
seizing. If they are going to seize the computer hardware in District B
to get the data, they must get a warrant in District B (after all, the
District B computer was never moved). If agents are simply copying data,
however, it could be argued that the data uploaded from District A to
District B is property that has been moved. Since the item to be seized
is data and not its storage device, the "within the district" requirement
2. Describing the Items to be Seized
When the evidence consists of information in a computer system, but the
computer itself is not an instrumentality of the offense or otherwise
seizable, the hardware is simply a storage device. First and foremost,
all technical matters aside, searching the computer is conceptually
similar to searching a file cabinet for papers. One important difference
is that while the storage capacity of a file cabinet is limited, the
storage capacity of computers continues to increase. A standard
40-megabyte hard drive contains approximately 20,000 pages of
information, and 200+ megabyte drives are already quite common.
Therefore, although the computer itself is no more important to an
investigation than the old cabinet was, the technology may complicate
enormously the process of extracting the information.
Bearing this analogy in mind, if agents have probable cause only for the
documents in the computer and not for the box itself, they should draft
the warrant with the same degree of specificity as for any other document
or business record in a similar situation. For example, the detail used
to describe a paper sales receipt (for a certain product sold on a
certain date) should not be any less specific merely because the record
As with other kinds of document cases, the breadth of a warrant's
authority to search through a suspect's computer will depend on the
breadth of the criminality. Where there is probable cause to believe that
is pervasively illegal, the warrant will authorize the seizure of records
(both paper and electronic) far more extensively than if probable cause
is narrow and specific. "When there is probable cause to seize all
[items], the warrant may be broad because it is unnecessary to
distinguish things that may be taken from things that must be left
undisturbed." United States v. Bentley, 825 F.2d 1104, 1110 (7th Cir.),
cert. denied, 484 U.S. 901 (1987). But by the same token, "[w]hen the
probable cause covers fewer documents in a system of files, the warrant
must be more confined and tell officers how to separate documents to be
seized from others." Id. at 1110. See also Application of Lafayette
Academy, Inc., 610 F.2d 1 (lst Cir. 1979). There is nothing about the
nature of searching for documents on a computer which changes this
underlying legal analysis. Each warrant must be crafted broadly or
specifically according to the extent of the probable cause, and it should
focus on the content of the relevant documents rather than on the storage
devices which may contain them.
The difficulties arise when, armed with a narrow and specific warrant,
agents begin the search. If agents know exactly what they are looking for
(a certain letter; a voucher filed on a particular date), it may be
simple enough to state it in the warrant. But because computers, like
file cabinets, can store thousands of pages of information, the specific
letter may be much easier to describe than to find. Some may argue, with
good reason, that the sheer volume of evidence makes it impractical to
search on site. (For a more extensive discussion of these issues, see
"DECIDING WHETHER TO CONDUCT THE SEARCH ON-SITE OR TO REMOVE HARDWARE TO
ANOTHER LOCATION," supra p. 55.)
Even so, the volume-of-evidence argument, by itself, may not justify
seizing all the information storage devices--or even all of the
information on them--when only some of it is relevant. In In Re Grand
Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum Dated November 15. 1993, 846 F. Supp. 1 1
(S.D.N.Y. 1994), the district court applied a similar analysis to a grand
jury subpoena for digital storage devices. In that case, the government
had subpoenaed the central processing units, hard disks, floppy disks,
and any other storage devices supplied by the target corporation ("X
Corporation") to specified officers and employees of the corporation. Of
course, these storage devices also contained unrelated information,
including some that was quite personal: an employee's will and individual
financial records and information. When "X Corporation" moved to quash
the subpoena, the government acknowledged that searching the storage
devices by 'key word' would identify the relevant documents for the grand
jury's investigation. Even so, prosecutors continued to argue for
enforcement of the subpoena as written, particularly because the grand
jury was also investigating the corporation for obstruction of justice.
In quashing the subpoena, the judge clearly distinguished between
documents or records and the computer devices which contain them.
The subpoena at issue here is not framed in terms of specified categories
of information. Rather, it demands specified information storage
devices.... Implicit in [an earlier case] is a determination that
subpoenas properly are interpreted as seeking categories of paper
documents, not categories of filing cabinets. Because it is easier in the
computer age to separate relevant from irrelevant documents, [the]
ontological choice between filing cabinets and paper documents has even
greater force when applied to the modern analogues of these earlier
methods of storing information.
Although the judge found that investigating the corporation for
"obstruction and related charges indeed justifies a commensurately
broader subpoena ...," he declined to modify, rather than quash, the
subpoena at issue because "this Court does not have sufficient
information to identify relevant documents (including directory
files)...." The court's reference to directory files seems to imply that
the directory would necessarily list everything in the storage
device--which is, of course, not true. A directory would not display
hidden, erased, or overwritten files which could still be recoverable by
a computer expert. Perhaps the judge's conclusion might have been
different if the government had proceeded by search warrant rather than
subpoena. In any case, it is interesting to note that the court, in
trying to find a balance, suggested that when a grand jury suspects "that
subpoenaed documents are being withheld, a court-appointed expert could
search the hard drives and floppy disks."
3. Removing Hardware to Search Off-Site: Ask the Magistrate for Explicit
Because the complexities of computer data searches may require agents to
remove computers from a search scene, agents and prosecutors should
anticipate this issue and, whenever it arises, ask for the magistrate's
permission. Obviously, the more information they have to support this
decision, the better--and the affidavit should set out all the relevant
details. It will be most important to have this explicit permission in
the warrant for those cases where (as in Tamura, supra p. 58) agents must
seize the haystack to find the needle.
If the original warrant has not authorized this kind of seizure, but the
agent discovers that the search requires it, she should return to the
magistrate and amend the warrant, unless exigencies preclude it.
4. Seeking Authority for a No-Knock Warrant
a. In General
Under 18 U.S.C. 3109, an agent executing a search warrant must announce
his authority for acting and the purpose of his call. See, e.g., United
States v. Barrett, 725 F. Supp. 9 (D.D.C. 1989)("Police, search warrant,
open up"). This knock-and-announce requirement, although statutory, has
been incorporated into the Fourth Amendment, United States v.
Bustamante-Gamez, 488 F.2d 4, 11-12 (9th Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 416
U.S. 970 (1974), and therefore a statutory violation may also be a
constitutional one. United States v. Murrie, 534 F.2d 695, 698 (6th Cir.
1976); United States v. Valenzuela, 596 F.2d 824, 830 (9th Cir.), cert.
denied, 441 U.S. 965 (1979). The knock~-and-announce rule is designed to
reduce the possibility of violence (the occupant of the premises may
believe a burglary is occurring), reduce the risk of damage to private
property (by allowing the occupant to open the door), protect the
innocent (the agent may be executing the warrant at the wrong location),
and symbolize the government's respect for private property.
Of course, if no one is present, there is no one to notify, and agents
can search the place without waiting for its occupant. United States v.
Brown, 556 F.2d 304 (5th Cir. 1977). The knock-and-announce requirement
also does not apply when the door is open. United States v. Remigio, 767
F.2d 730 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1009 (1985). It is unclear
whether the rule applies to businesses, as different courts have reached
Cf. United States v. Agrusa, 541 F.2d 690 (8th Cir. 1976)( 3109 applies
to businesses), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1045 (1977), with United States v.
Francis, 646 F.2d 251 (6th Cir.)( 3109 applies only to dwellings), cert.
denied, 454 U.S. 1082 (1981).
After knocking and announcing, agents must give the occupants a
reasonable opportunity to respond, although exigent circumstances may
justify breaking in without an actual refusal. Compare United States v.
Ruminer, 786 F.2d 381 (10th Cir. 1986)(break-in authorized where police
waited five seconds and saw people running in house), with United States
v. Sinclair, 742 F. Supp. 688, 690-1 (D.D.C. 1990)(one- to two-second
delay, even with noise inside, was insufficient to warrant break-in).
Moreover, exigent circumstances may justify forcible entry without
"knocking and announcing" at all. Circumstances are exigent if agents
reasonably believe that giving notice to people inside could cause (1)
the officer or any other individual to be hurt; (2) a suspect to flee; or
(3) the evidence to be destroyed. Additionally, investigators need not
knock and announce when it would be a "useless gesture" because the
people inside already know their authority and purpose.
b. In Computer-Related Cases
In many computer crime cases, the primary concern will be preserving the
evidence. Technically adept suspects may "hot-wire" their computers in an
effort to hide evidence. Although there are many ways to do this, two
more common practices involve "hot keys" and time-delay functions. A "hot
key" program is designed to destroy evidence, usually by overwriting or
reformatting a disk, when a certain key is pressed.12 Thus, when officers
knock at the door and announce their presence, the subject of the search
can hit the key that activates the program. A time-delay function is a
program that monitors the keyboard to determine whether the user has
pressed any key. If no key is
12 Of course, the fact that this occurs does not mean the evidence cannot
he salvaged. Experts can often recover data which has been deleted or
pressed within a certain period of time, such as 30 seconds, the program
activates and destroys data. A target may, therefore, answer the door
slowly and attempt to delay the agent's access to the machine.
These problems, which may be present in every computer crime
investigation, are not, standing alone, sufficient to justify dispensing
with the knock-and-announce rule. Most courts have required agents to
state specifically why these premises or these people make it either
dangerous or imprudent to knock and announce before a search. See United
States v. Carter, 566 F.2d 1265 (5th Cir. 1978)(someone inside yelled
"It's the cops" and the agent, who had a warrant to search for heroin,
heard running inside), cert. denied, 436 U.S. 956 (1978); United States
v. Stewart, 867 F.2d 581 (10th Cir. 1989)(collecting cases). But cf.
United States v. Wysong, 528 F.2d 345 (9th Cir. 1976)(mere fact that
police knew defendant was trafficking in an easily destroyable liquid
narcotic created exigent circumstance that justified entry without
knocking and announcing).
In short, most cases hold that agents must have some reasonable,
articulable basis to dispense with the knock-and-announce requirement.
Moreover, in light of the salutary purposes served by the rule, they
should have very good reasons before deviating from it. In appropriate
cases, however, a no-knock warrant should be obtained. In deciding
whether to seek a no-knock warrant, agents should consider, among other
things: (1) what offense is being investigated (is it a narcotics case
where the subjects may be armed, or is it non-violent hacking?); (2) is
there information indicating evidence will be destroyed (in one recent
hacker case, the targets talked about destroying evidence if raided by
the police); (3) the age and technical sophistication of the target; and
(4) whether the target knows, or may know, he is under investigation.
VII. POST-SEARCH PROCEDURES
As noted above, the government is permitted to search for and to seize
property that is contraband, evidence, or an instrumentality of the
offense. The law does not authorize the government to seize items which
do not have evidentiary value, and generally agents cannot take things
from a search site when their non-evidentiary nature is apparent at the
time of the search.
With computer crimes, however, it is not always possible to examine and
separate wheat from chaff at the search location. There may be thousands
of pages of data on the system; they may be encrypted or compressed (and
thus unreadable); and searching computers frequently requires expert
computer skills and equipment. All these factors contribute to the
impracticality of on-site processing. Accordingly, agents will often
seize evidentiary materials that are mixed in with collateral items. (See
"DECIDING WHETHER TO CONDUCT THE SEARCH ON-SITE OR TO REMOVE HARDWARE TO
ANOTHER LOCATION," supra p. 55.)
For several reasons, it is important to separate evidence (and
contraband, fruits, and instrumentalities) from irrelevant items. First,
as noted above, the law does not generally authorize seizing
non-evidentiary property. But to the extent agents sort and return these
materials after a search, the courts are less likely to require that
large amounts of data be sorted at the scene. Put another way, if law
enforcement authorities routinely retain boxes of property that are not
evidence, the courts surely will become less sympathetic in those cases
where it is, in fact, appropriate to seize entire systems and analyze
them later at the lab.
A second reason to promptly sort seized evidence is that the process will
help to organize the investigation. Agents and prosecutors will obviously
want to focus on the evidence when preparing complaints or indictments.
Getting a handle on the items that advance the case will help agents
assess quickly and accurately where the case should go. As much as
overbroad seizures offend the
law, they are just as bad for the investigation. Investigators should
cull out the things that do not help the case right away to avoid
endlessly sifting through unimportant materials as the investigation
Procedures for sorting, searching, and returning seized items will depend
in part upon the type of evidence involved. There are, however, certain
basic concepts that apply across the board. The basics include the
B. PROCEDURES FOR PRESERVING EVIDENCE
1. Chain of Custody
Computer evidence requires the same chain of custody procedures as other
types of evidence. Of course, the custodian must strictly control access
and keep accurate records to show who has examined the evidence and when.
(For a further discussion of this issue, see "EVIDENCE: Chain of
Custody," infra p. 119.)
As with other parts of the investigation, the sorting process should be
as organized as possible. If there are only a few agents involved, each
with discrete tasks, the job is likely to be quick and efficient. Many
agents, unsure of their tasks, are more likely to misplace or overlook
evidence. An organized review process, which is part of a larger,
well-briefed search plan, is also easier to describe and defend in court.
3. Keeping Records
Agents should always document their investigative activities. This allows
other agents and attorneys to keep track of complex investigations, and
will help the case agent reconstruct the sorting process at a later time
if necessary. A log should be kept that describes each item seized,
whether it was examined, and whether it contained evidence.
When items are returned, a receipt should set out: (a) a clear
description of the item, (b) the person who received it (with a signature
and identification), and (c) when the item was released. It often makes
sense to return all items at one time rather than to do it piecemeal.
Also, it is a good idea to keep photographs of the property returned in
order to avoid disputes.
4. Returning Seized Computers and Materials
Once agents have removed the computer system from the scene, an expert
should examine the seized material as soon as practicable. This
examination may be conducted by a trained field office agent, a special
agent sent to the field office for this purpose, or by a
properly-qualified private expert. Some agencies may require that the
computer system be shipped to a laboratory. Each agency should establish
and follow a reasonable procedure for handling computerized evidence.
Once the analyst has examined the computer system and data and decided
that some items or information need not be kept, the government should
return this property as soon as practicable. The courts have acknowledged
an individual's property interest in seized items, and the owner of
seized property can move the court for a return of property under Fed. R.
Crim. P. 41(e). That remedy is available not only when the search was
illegal, but also if the person simply alleges a "deprivation of property
by the Government." In Re Southeastern Equipment Co. Search Warrant, 746
F. Supp. 1563 (S.D. Ga. 1990).
Agents and prosecutors must remember that while a computer may be
analogous to a filing cabinet for the agents who search it, it is much
more to most computer users. It can be a data processor, graphics
designer, publisher, and telecommunications center. Courts will no doubt
recognize the increasingly important role computers play in our society,
and the public's extensive reliance on these computers to support the way
we live and do business. As a result, law enforcement should be prepared
to look carefully at the circumstances of each case and to seize
computers only as needed, keeping them only as necessary.
a. Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure: Rule 41(e)
While computer-owners may be especially eager for return of their
hardware, software, data, and related materials, the issue of whether to
retain or return lawfully seized property before trial is not unique to
computers. Rule 41(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure sets out
the standards and procedures for returning all property seized during the
execution of a search warrant. The Rule, in general, provides that a
party who is "aggrieved by an unlawful search and seizure or by the
deprivation of property" may file a motion for the return of the property
on the ground that the party is entitled "to lawful possession of the
A Rule 41(e) motion for return of property can be made either before or
after indictment. However, a district court's jurisdiction over a
pre-indictment motion is more limited than if the indictment has been
returned. Pre-indictment remedies are equitable in nature and must only
be exercised with "caution and restraint." Floyd v. United States, 860
F.2d 999, 1003 (10th Cir. 1988). The Tenth Circuit, the only Circuit to
address this issue, held that two conditions must be satisfied before a
district court may assume jurisdiction over a pre~indictment Rule 41(e)
motion: "a movant must demonstrate that being deprived
13 Rule 41(e) does not distinguish according to how the property was used
in the offense; thus, a computer used as an instrumentality of an offense
(e.g., to duplicate copyrighted software or hack into other systems) is
not treated differently for Rule 41 analysis from a computer used as a
"storage cabinet" for documents. Of course the government's interest in
seizing and keeping the computer in each case is different and, thus,
from a realistic standpoint, how the computer was used in the offense is
important in determining whether to retain or return it.
of actual possession of the seized property causes 'irreparable injury'
and must be otherwise without adequate remedy at law." Matter of Search
of Kitty's East, 905 F.2d 1367, 1371 (1Oth Cir. 1990).
Because of the paucity of cases in this area, it is very difficult to say
what facts will satisfy this two-part test. However, the reported
decisions do offer guidance in responding to a request for the return of
seized property. The Tenth Circuit in Kitty's East held that the
"irreparable injury" element is not satisfied by the threat of an
imminent indictment. 905 F.2d at 1371, citing Blinder, Robinson & Co. v.
United States, 897 F.2d 1549, 1557 (1Oth Cir. 1990). The appellate court
in Kitty's East upheld the district court's decision to take jurisdiction
because the nature of the seized materials--pornographic
videotapes--invoked the First Amendment right of free speech. "Although
the interests of the commercial speech at issue here may not equate with
those of political speech, we agree that the special protections of the
First Amendment justified the exercise of equitable jurisdiction in this
case." Id. Conversely, the Blinder court rejected the movant's contention
that it was irreparably injured by the government's failure to return
original documents: "[T]he record strongly suggests that [the movant] is
able to operate with photocopies of the documents seized by the
government and either has copies or can make copies of all the property
that the government seized." Blinder, 897 F.2d at 1557.
Once jurisdiction has been established, Rule 41(e), according to the
Tenth Circuit, requires the party to also show that the retention of the
property by the government is unreasonable:
Reasonableness under all of the circumstances must be the test when a
person seeks to obtain the return of property. If the United States has a
need for the property in an investigation or prosecution, its retention
of the property generally is reasonable. But, if the United States'
legitimate interests can be satisfied even if the property is returned,
continued retention of the property would become unreasonable.
Id., quoting Committee Note to 1989 Amendment at 30, 124 F.R.D. at 428.
As described, the Kitty's East court initially held the district court
had properly exercised jurisdiction over the motion because of the
possibility that the movant's First Amendment rights would be impaired.
However, the court then denied the Rule 41(e) motion for the return of
the seized property. The
court held that Kitty's East failed to demonstrate that it was aggrieved
by an unreasonable retention of the property:
With regard to the videotapes seized, Kitty's has made no argument that
the seizure has precluded all exhibition or rental of the videotapes in
question. Kitty's First Amendment rights are not sufficiently infringed
by the government's seizure for evidence of a few copies of a limited
number of videotapes to be 'aggrieved' under Rule 41(e).... Further,
return of the videotapes would pose too great a risk of loss of potential
evidence. As the Supreme Court has noted, 'such films may be compact,
readily transported for exhibition in other jurisdictions, easily
destructible, and particularly susceptible to alteration by cutting and
splicing critical areas of film.' We hold therefore, that the
government's retention of no more than two evidentiary copies of each
film is reasonable and does not 'aggrieve' Kitty's under Rule 41(e).
905 F.2d at 1376 (citations omitted).
In United States v. Taft, 769 F. Supp. 1295, 1307 (D. Vt. 1991) the court
relied on Kitty's East to deny a motion for the return of two firearms
which had been legally seized by the government during the execution of a
search warrant. Moreover, the court refused to second guess the
government about the evidentiary value of the guns: "[H]aving decided
that the government legally seized the two firearms, this court will not
opine as to the evidentiary value of the guns in the instant prosecution
for cultivation of marijuana."
The decisions addressing Rule 41(e) impose a heavy burden on a party
seeking the return of property, including computers, lawfully seized by
the government. However, unless there is a reason not to do it, agents
should explore giving the computer owner copies of the computer disks
seized--even when Rule 41(e) does not require it. This is especially true
if the owner needs the data to run a business. Of course, if the
information stored on the disks is contraband or if copying the
information would jeopardize the investigation, agents should not make
copies for the owner.
Similarly, if the owner of a seized computer needs it for business, there
may be intermediate solutions. For example, using careful scientific
protocols and keeping exacting records, an analyst can make printouts
from the hard drives to have "original" records to admit in court.
Following the same process, the analyst can then make a mirror image (or
"bit-stream") data copy
of the hard drives for later analysis. Before returning the computers,
agents should explain the printout and copying processes used, and give
the defense an opportunity to object to the integrity and admissibility
of the printouts and copies at that time. Best practice is to ask the
defense counsel to sign an explicit waiver of those issues at the time
the computer is returned and to stipulate that printouts and electronic
copies will be admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 1001. (For a more extensive
discussion of admitting electronic evidence, see "EVIDENCE," infra p.
113.) If the defense refuses to concede the accuracy and admissibility of
the printouts and copies, the government should keep the computer. (For a
form "Stipulation for Returning Original Electronic Data," see APPENDIX
A, p. 135).
In deciding whether to retain hardware, agents should consider several
factors. Aspects that weigh in favor of keeping hardware include: (1) the
hardware was used to commit a crime, was obtained through criminal
activity, or is evidence of criminal activity, (2) the owner of the
hardware would use it to commit additional crimes if it were returned,
(3) the hardware is unique and is either essential for recovering data
from storage devices or difficult to describe without the physical item
present in court, and (4) the hardware does not serve legitimate
purposes. Factors that weigh in favor of returning hardware include: (1)
a photograph of the hardware would serve the same evidentiary purpose as
having the machines in court, (2) the hardware is an ordinary,
unspecialized piece of equipment such as a telephone, (3) the hardware is
used primarily for legal purposes, and (4) the hardware is unlikely to be
used criminally if returned.
Although the result will depend on the precise facts of each case, some
basic principles are clear. Where hardware was used to commit a crime
(instrumentality) or is the proceeds of crime (fruit) and it belongs to
the suspect, agents should generally keep it. When the hardware clearly
is not evidence of a crime (e.g. an electronic wristwatch which turns out
to have no memory), it should generally be returned.
The difficult situations arise when hardware was only tangential in the
crime, played primarily a non-criminal role, or does not belong to the
suspect. In these cases, agents and prosecutors must balance the
government's need to retain the original items against the property
owner's interest in getting them back. In any case, aggrieved property
owners can ask the court to order the government to return even
lawfully-seized items. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(e).
Warrants often include computer books, programming guides, user manuals
and the like. These items may have evidentiary significance in several
ways: they may be proprietary (e.g. telephone company technical manual
for employees); they may indicate that software, hardware, or the manuals
themselves were obtained illegally; they may be necessary for searching a
particular, customized machine also covered by the warrant; or they may
contain handwritten notes about how the subject used the machine. In this
case, agents should treat the books and manuals as evidence and retain
Very often, however, books and manuals are not unique. Most of the time,
they will be publicly available user guides without significant
handwritten notes. They may be convenient references for investigators,
but they do not add anything that could not be commercially purchased. In
such cases, Rule 41(e) does not require subjects to supply such equipment
or technical information, so these items (if they contain no evidence)
should be returned.
d. Notes and Papers
Notes and papers often contain extremely valuable information like
passwords, login sequences, and other suspects' telephone numbers or
names. Notes also tend to be rather cryptic, so agents will not always
know right away what they are. Accordingly, it may be appropriate to
retain notes and papers until they can be carefully examined, but agents
should return records that are clearly not evidence or instrumentality.
e. Third-Party Owners
The retain-or-return question is particularly delicate when the evidence
(usually hardware) belongs to innocent third parties. While the
government is clearly entitled to seize evidence no matter who owns it,
Rule 41(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure recognizes that the
property owner may move for return of unreasonably held items. See Fed.
R. Crim. P. 41(e) advisory committee note (1989)("reasonableness under
all of the circumstances must be the test when a person seeks to obtain
the return of property"). The committee notes further point out that the
government's legitimate interests can often be satisfied "by copying
documents or by conditioning the return on government access to the
property at a future time." Id.
When a third party claims ownership, it is important to evaluate
competing claims before deciding what to do. The worst solution is to
return property to someone who later turns out not to have been the
rightful owner. Thus, whenever it is appropriate to return property,
agents must verify ownership with documents or other reliable evidence.
If in doubt, it is best to retain the item and let the aggrieved parties
assert their various claims in court. This way, the government will not
become embroiled in complicated ownership investigations, and will not
release property to the wrong party. [no page 112]
Although the primary concern of these Guidelines is search and seizure,
the ultimate goal is to obtain evidence admissible in court. From the
moment agents seize electronic evidence, they should understand both the
legal and technical issues that this sort of evidence presents under the
Federal Rules of Evidence.
It can be especially confusing to think about digital proof because, both
in our current discussions and in early cases, legal analysts have tended
to treat "computer evidence" as if it were its own separate, overarching
evidentiary category. Of course, in some very practical ways electronic
evidence is unique: it can be created, altered, stored, copied, and moved
with unprecedented ease, which creates both problems and opportunities
for advocates. But in many important respects, "computer evidence," like
any other, must pass a variety of traditional admissibility tests.
Specifically, some commentary is not very clear whether admitting
computer records requires a "best evidence" analysis, an authentication
process, a hearsay examination, or all of the above. Advocates and courts
have sometimes mixed, matched, and lumped these ideas together by talking
simply about the "reliability" or "trustworthiness" of computer evidence
in general, sweeping terms, rather than asking critically whether the
evidence was "trustworthy" in all required aspects.
Part of the reason for this is probably that the first computer evidence
offered in court was information generated by businesses. Long before
most people used computers in their homes, telephone companies and banks
were using them to record, process, and report information that their
businesses required. Not surprisingly, many of the early decisions link
computer evidence with the business records exception to the hearsay
rule. Of course, that exception--which is meant to address a substantive
hearsay problem--also includes a sort of internal authentication
analysis. (Fed. R. Evid. 803(6)
requires a showing that a record was made "at or near the time by, or
from information transmitted by, a person with knowledge. . .").
But "computer evidence" as we know it today covers the universe of
documentary materials, and is certainly not limited to business records.
Computer evidence may or may not contain hearsay statements. It will
always need to be authenticated in some way. And data that has been
produced, processed, and retrieved under circumstances other than the
discipline of a business probably will not contain the qualities that
make electronic evidence "reliable" as a business record. Even business
records, themselves, may require a closer look, depending on what the
proponent wants to do with them at trial.
The key for advocates will be in understanding the true nature of each
electronic exhibit they offer or oppose: for what purpose and by what
process (both human and technological) was it created? And what specific
issues of evidence (rules of form? rules of substance?) does that
particular electronic item raise?
B. THE BEST EVIDENCE RULE
One of the issues that investigators and lawyers sometimes cite as
troublesome in working with electronic evidence turns out, on
examination, to be a largely surmountable hurdle: the "best evidence
rule." This rule provides that "[t]o prove the content of a writing,
recording, or photograph, the original writing, recording, or photograph
is required, except as otherwise provided in these rules or by Act of
Congress." Fed. R. Evid. 1002.
The impact of this rule is softened considerably by its reference to
other rules. Indeed, Fed. R. Evid. 1001 makes clear in two separate
provisions that when it comes to electronic documents, the term
"original" has an expansive meaning. First of all, Fed. R. Evid. 1001(1)
defines "writings and recordings" to explicitly include magnetic,
mechanical, or electronic methods of "setting down" letters, words,
numbers, or their equivalents. Clearly, then, when someone creates a
document on a computer hard drive, for example, the electronic data
stored on that drive is an admissible writing. A proponent could
obviously offer it to a court by producing the hard drive in court and
it with a monitor. But that somewhat cumbersome process is not the only
choice. In telling us what constitutes an "original" writing or
recording, Fed. R. Evid. 1001(3) says further that "[i]f data are stored
in a computer or similar device, any printout or other output readable by
sight, shown to reflect the data accurately, is an 'original."' Thus, so
long as they are accurate, paper printouts from electronic storage
devices qualify as "originals" under the rule, and there is clearly no
evidentiary need to haul computer equipment into a courtroom simply to
admit a document--although there sometimes may be tactical reasons for
But even having set up that inclusive definition of "original" writing,
the Federal Rules go much further to relax the common law standard. Fed.
R. Evid. 1003 provides that "[a] duplicate is admissible to the same
extent as an original unless (1) a genuine question is raised as to the
authenticity of the original or (2) in the circumstances it would be
unfair to admit the duplicate in lieu of the original." Therefore, unless
authenticity or some "unfairness" is at issue, courts may freely admit
duplicate electronic documents. "Duplicate" is defined in Fed. R. Evid.
1001(4) as "a counterpart produced by the same impression as the original
... by mechanical or electronic re-recording ... or by other equivalent
techniques which accurately reproduces (sic) the original." Many
investigative agencies analyze data evidence from exact electronic copies
(called "bit-stream" copies) made with commercial or custom-made
software. So long as the copies have been properly made and maintained,
the Federal Rules allow judges to accept these copies (or expert opinions
based on them) as readily as the originals.
Thus, the Federal Rules have, despite their nod to the best evidence
rule, made way for a lively courtroom use of electronic evidence in all
its many forms. Questions of admissibility turn not on whether the data
before a court is on a hard drive, a duplicate floppy disk, or a printout
of either one. Instead, courts must ask whether the original data is
authentic and whether any copies offered are accurate.
C. AUTHENTICATING ELECTRONIC DOCUMENTS
Of course, every time trial lawyers offer any piece of evidence, they
must be ready to show that, as the authentication rule, Fed. R. Evid.
states, "the matter in question is what its proponent claims." Clearly,
there are many ways to do this, including the ten illustrations offered
by Fed. R. Evid. 901 (b).
1. "Distinctive" Evidence
One of the most common methods for authenticating evidence is to show the
item's identity through some distinctive characteristic or quality.
Indeed, the authentication requirement of Fed. R. Evid. 901(a) is
satisfied if an item is "distinctive" in its "appearance, contents,
substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics, taken
in conjunction with circumstances." Fed. R. Evid. 901(b)(4). In fact, it
is standard practice to use this method to authenticate some kinds of
evidence which may now be digitally created, stored, and reproduced. For
example, attorneys offering photographs into evidence invariably just ask
a "witness with knowledge" (under Fed. R. Evid. 901(b)(1)) whether a
particular photo is "a fair and accurate representation" of something or
someone. But should the process of authenticating photographs recognize
that, with the advent of digital photography, it is now possible to alter
an electronic image without leaving a trace? Consider the following
Agents and prosecutors were shown a photograph of a body--twisted on the
floor, a gaping wound in the chest. Across the room, on the floor, was a
large pistol. On the white wall above the victim's body, scrawled in the
victim's own blood, were the words, "I'll kill again. You'll never catch
Unlike conventional photographs, however, this picture was not created
with film, but with a digital camera. The entire picture was made up of
binary digits, ones and zeros, which could be altered without detection.
So two law enforcement agents, using commercially available software,
started rearranging the digits. They "cleaned" the wall, removing the
bloody words. They closed the chest wound, choosing instead to have blood
trickling from the victim's temple. Last, they moved the gun into the
victim's hand. The case was now solved: the report would claim, and the
photograph would "prove," the victim committed suicide.
This was, of course, only a demonstration, which took place in the summer
of 1991 at a meeting of the Federal Computer Investigations Committee.
The Committee had been established by a handful of federal and state law
enforcement personnel who were among the first to appreciate how emerging
technologies were both providing new opportunities for criminals and
creating new challenges for law enforcement officials. For this group,
the point of this demonstration was apparent: not only could ordinary
photographs not be trusted in the same old way to be reliable, but an
ordinary agent might be duped if he or she were not technologically
astute enough to realize the potential for sophisticated digital
alteration. The key, of course, is that there is no negative, and the
alteration leaves no tracks.
Nor will these authenticity problems be limited to photographs. For
example, some package delivery services now allow recipients to sign for
their packages on a hand-held device which creates a digital copy of the
recipient's signature. Although this makes it easy to transfer the
information to a computer, it also enables the computer to recreate the
signature. If the hand~held device measures and records the pressure
applied by the signer and if the computer reprints that signature with an
ink-based printer, the computer~-generated copy will look absolutely
authentic--even to the author.
Despite these examples, there will be many times when electronic
evidence--whether photographs or documents--will indeed be identifiable
based on distinctive characteristics alone. An eyewitness can just as
easily identify a digital photograph of a person as he could a
conventional photo. The question for both judge and jury will be the
witness's ability and veracity in observing and recalling the original
person, photo, scene, or document with which he compares the in-court
version. The fact that it is possible to alter a photo--for example, to
extend the skid marks at an accident scene--is far less significant if
the authenticating witness is independently sure from observing the site
that the skid marks were, in fact, ten feet long. Similarly, the
recipient of a discarded electronic ransom note may recall the content of
the original note well enough to authenticate a printout from the
But to the extent that in-court photos or documents support incomplete or
fading witness memories--or even substitute for witness memory
altogether--lawyers must realize that "distinctive characteristics" in
electronic evidence may be easy to alter, and may not, depending on the
circumstances, satisfy a court. What witness can independently verify the
distinctive accuracy of long lists of names or numbers? Can he say that a
digital photo is "a fair and accurate
representation of a crime scene" in all details--no matter how minor they
may have seemed at the time? While he will probably be able to remember
whether there was a knife sticking out of a body, will he be able to
verify the precise location of a shoe across the room? An eyewitness who
picked out the defendant at a line-up should be able to look at a
photograph of the array and find the defendant again. But can she say for
sure, when testifying at a hearing on defendant's motion to suppress an
allegedly suggestive line-up, that all the other people in the picture
are exactly as she saw them? Has there been no mustache added in this
picture, no height or weight changed in any way? And although the
recipient of a ransom note may well be able to recall the exact words of
the note, will he recall the type face?
It is important to remember that the traditional process of
authenticating an item through its uniqueness often carries an unspoken
assumption that the thing--the murder weapon, the photo, or the letter,
for example--is a package deal. It either is or is not the thing the
witness remembers. Thus, if the witness can identify particular aspects
of the item with certainty (such as the content of the ransom note), the
other aspects (such as the type face) usually follow along without much
debate. Of course, there are times, even with conventional photography,
when an authenticating witness will be asked about internal details:
"When you saw the crime scene at 5:30, were the shoes both on the right
side of the room?" In those circumstances, attorneys and judges naturally
tend to be more exacting in establishing that the witness can
authenticate not only part of the package, but all the parts that matter.
But with digital photography, this rather minor problem of authentication
takes on a new life. Depending on the way electronic evidence has been
produced, stored, and reproduced, the collection of ones and zeros that
constitutes the "package" of the photograph is infinitely and
independently variable--not by moving shoes at the crime scene, but by
changing any digits at any time before the exhibit photo is printed.
Perhaps judges will find themselves admitting digital photographs and
documents based on "distinctive characteristics" if a witness with
knowledge can identify and authenticate the item in all relevant detail.
But that, of course, requires a judge to know in advance which details
will be relevant to the case and which are insignificant. If the
characteristic that makes the item distinctive is not the same one that
makes it relevant, judges might and should be wary about admitting
evidence in this way. Even if judges are satisfied, attorneys who cross
examine an authenticating witness on minute details of digital
photographs may affect the witness's credibility with the jury,
especially if the attorney shows how easily the evidence could be
One of the potential solutions to this problem which arises from the
nature of electronic evidence may actually be electronic: digital
signatures. The Digital Signature Standard, proposed by the National
Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the Department of
Commerce, would allow authors to encrypt their documents with a key known
only to them. Assuming the author has not disclosed his password to
others, this identifying key could serve as a sort of electronic evidence
seal. In that event, the signature would be just the kind of distinctive
characteristic the rules already recognize.
For the time being, however, most computer evidence can still be altered
electronically--in dramatic ways or in imperceptible detail--without any
sign of erasure. But this does not mean that electronic evidence, having
become less distinctive, has become any less admissible. It simply may
require us to authenticate it in other ways.
2. Chain of Custody
When prosecutors present evidence to a court, they must be ready to show
that the thing they offer is the same thing the agents seized. When that
evidence is not distinctive but fungible (whether little bags of cocaine,
bullet shell casings, or electronic data), the "process or system" (to
use the language of Fed. R. Evid. 901(b)(9)) which authenticates the item
is a hand-to-hand chain of accountability.
Although courts generally have allowed any witness with knowledge to
authenticate a photograph without requiring the photographer to testify,
that may not suffice for digital photos. Indeed, judges may now demand
that the proponent of a digital picture be ready to establish a complete
chain of custody --from the photographer to the person who produced the
printout for trial. Even so, the printout itself may be a distinctive
item when it bears the authenticator's initials, or some other
recognizable mark. If the photographer takes a picture, and then
immediately prints and initials the image that becomes
an exhibit, the chain of custody is just that simple. But if the exhibit
was made by another person or at a later time, the proponent should be
ready to show where the data has been stored and how it was protected
3. Electronic Processing of Evidence
When data goes into computers, there are many methods and forms for
getting it out. To the extent that computers simply store information for
later retrieval, a data printout may qualify as an original document
under Fed. R. Evid. 1001(3). Where the computer has merely acted as a
technological file cabinet, advocates must be ready to authenticate the
in-court version of the document as genuine, but the evidentiary issues
(at least those connected to the computer) do not pertain to the
substance or content of the document.
But in many cases, attorneys want to introduce evidence that the computer
has not only stored, but has also processed in some fashion. If the
computer, its operating system, and its applications software have
reorganized the relevant information--by comparing, calculating,
evaluating, re-grouping, or selectively retrieving--this processing has
altered at least the form of the information, and probably the substance
The fact that the computer has changed, selected, or evaluated data
naturally does not make the resulting product inadmissible, but it does
require another analytical step. The computer processing itself often
creates a new meaning, adds new information--which is really the
equivalent of an implicit statement. If an advocate wishes to introduce
this processed product, he usually offers it for the truth of the
conclusion it asserts. For example, when the telephone company compiles
raw data into a phone bill for a subscriber, the bill is literally a
statement: "The following long distance calls (and no others) were placed
from your phone to these numbers on these days and times."
If the computer has created a hearsay statement by turning raw evidence
into processed evidence, its proponent should be ready to show that the
process is reliable. Computers process data in many different ways by
running programs, which can be commercially or privately written. Any of
these programs can contain logical errors, called "bugs," which could
significantly affect the accuracy of the computer process. And even if
there is no error in
the code, a technician may run the program in a way that creates a false
result. For example, a particular computer search program may be "case
sensitive," which means that the upper- and lower-case versions of any
given letter are not interchangeable. If an author working in WordPerfect
(a popular word~-processing program), searches a document for the word
"Evidence," the computer will not find the word "evidence," because the
letter "e" was not capitalized. What does it mean, then, when the
computer reports that the word was "not found"? Under what circumstances
should a computer's conclusion be admissible in court?
Consider a failure-to-file tax case. If a prosecutor asks the IRS to
search its databanks to see whether a taxpayer filed a return in a
particular year, the IRS may give her two very different products. If the
taxpayer filed electronically, the IRS can produce either an original
document from its computers (a printout of the filing) or an admissible
duplicate in the form of an electronic copy. In that case, the IRS
computers simply acted as storage cabinets to hold and reproduce the
information that was entered by the taxpayer. Tax return in; tax return
But if, on the other hand, the IRS searches its databanks and finds
nothing, the IRS's negative report is clearly a hearsay statement which
results from a computer process--the electronic search for the taxpayer's
tax return. The hearsay rule (Fed. R. Evid. 803(10)) allows the absence
of a public record to be shown by testimony "that diligent search failed
to disclose the record ...." But testimony in what form? Will the
negative computer report suffice, or should the technician who ran the
search testify? Must the technician explain not only what keystrokes he
entered to conduct the search, but also establish the error-free logic of
the program he used? Must he know not only that the program searches for
both lower- and upper-case versions of the taxpayer's name, but also
exactly how it accomplishes that task? While the absence of a record is
often admitted in evidence, prosecutors can expect that as attorneys
become more computer-literate, defense counsel will raise new challenges
in this area. Indeed, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the IRS's negative
report rests on many different components, including the reliability
(both human and technical) of the computer process.
Certainly, the mathematical validity of any program is a question of
fact--a question which the opponent of a piece of processed evidence
should have an opportunity at some point to explore and to contest.
Similarly, the methods and safeguards involved in executing the program
must also be fair ground for
analysis and challenge. While it would clearly be both unnecessary and
burdensome to prove every step of a computer process in every case,
courts must also be ready to look behind these processes when the facts
warrant. As lawyers and judges learn more about all the variables
involved in creating evidence through computer processing, this area may
become a new battleground for technical experts.
D. THE HEARSAY RULE
Most agents and prosecutors are familiar with the business records
exception to the hearsay rule. Fed. R. Evid. 803(6). Generally speaking,
any "memorandum, report, record, or data compilation" (1) made at or near
the time of the event, (2) by, or from information transmitted by, a
person with knowledge, is admissible if the record was kept in the course
of a regularly conducted business activity, and it was the regular
practice of that business activity to make the record.
A business computer's processing and re-arranging of digital information
is often part of a company's overall practice of recording its regularly
conducted activity. Information from telephone calls, bank transactions,
and employee time sheets is regularly processed, as a fundamental part of
the business, into customer phone bills, bank account statements, and
payroll checks. Logic argues that if the business relies on the accuracy
of the computer process, the court probably can as well.
This is different, however, from using a company's raw data (collected
and stored in the course of business, perhaps) and electronically
processing it in a new or unusual way to create an exhibit for trial. For
example, banks regularly process data to show each account-holder's
transactions for the month, and most courts would readily accept that
monthly statement as a qualifying business record. But may a court
presume a similar regularity when the same bank runs a special data
search for all checks paid from the account-holder's account over the
past year to an account in Switzerland? In this case, even though the
report was not made at or near the time of the event, the document is
probably admissible as a summary under Fed. R. Evid. 1006. That rule
allows courts to admit a "chart, summary, or calculation" as a substitute
for "voluminous writing, recordings, or photographs." Nonetheless,
other parties still have the right to examine and copy the unabridged
original data, and to challenge the accuracy of the summary. Of course,
this also opens the way to challenges of any computer process which
created the summary.
In most other respects, of course, the hearsay rule operates with
computer evidence exactly as it does with any other sort of evidence. For
instance, statements for purposes of medical treatment, vital statistics,
or statements against interest may all qualify as exceptions to the
hearsay rule, whether they are oral, written, or electronic. Clearly, an
electronic statement against interest must also be authenticated
properly, but it does not fail as hearsay. Conversely, a correctly
authenticated electronic message may contain all sorts of hearsay
statements for which there are no exceptions.
The key is that computer evidence is no longer limited to business
records, and the cases that carry that assumption are distinguishable
when advocates work with other kinds of electronic evidence. But even
with business records, a trial lawyer well versed in the technological
world who knows how to ask the right questions may find that the "method
or circumstances of preparation indicate lack of trustworthiness," under
Fed. R. Evid. 803(6), to such a degree that a court will sustain, or at
least consider, a challenge to the admissibility of the evidence.
Computers and their products are not inherently reliable, and it is
always wise to ask, in any particular case, what computers do and how
they do it.
[no page 124] [Page 125]
APPENDIX A: SAMPLE COMPUTER LANGUAGE FOR SEARCH WARRANTS
IT IS ESSENTIAL to evaluate each case on its facts and craft the language
of the warrant accordingly. Computer search warrants, even more than most
others, are never one-size-fits-all products. The following paragraphs
are a starting point for recurring situations, but may be adjusted in
infinite ways. If you have any questions about tailoring an affidavit and
warrant for your case, please call the Computer Crime Unit at
202-514-1026 for more suggestions.
Your affiant knows that computer hardware, software, documentation,
passwords, and data security devices may be important to a criminal
investigation in two distinct and important respects: (1) the objects
themselves may be instrumentalities, fruits, or evidence of crime, and/or
(2) the objects may have been used to collect and store information about
crimes (in the form of electronic data). Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of
Criminal Procedure permits the government to search and seize computer
hardware, software, documentation, passwords, and data security devices
which are (1) instrumentalities, fruits, or evidence of crime, or (2)
storage devices for information about crime.
1. Tangible Objects
a. Justify Seizing the Objects
Explain why, in this case, the tangible computer items are
instrumentalities, fruits, or evidence of crime--independent of the
information they may hold.
Your affiant knows that [subject's] regional offices concertedly and
systematically supplied various specialized computer programs to its
individual local offices. These computer programs were designed to
manipulate data in ways which would automatically add a few pennies to
the amount billed to customers for each transaction. By using this
specially designed program in its computers, the [subject] was able to
commit a pervasive and significant fraud on all customers which would be
very difficult for any one of them to detect.
* * * * * * *
or * * * * * * *
Your affiant knows that [subject] accessed computers without authority
from his home by using computer hardware, software, related
documentation, passwords, data security devices, and data, more
specifically described as follows: [ ].
* * * * * * *
* * * * * * *
As described above, the [subject's] computer hardware, software, related
documentation, passwords, data security devices, and data were integral
tools of this crime and constitute the means of committing it. As such,
they are instrumentalities and evidence of the violations designated.
Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure authorizes the
government to seize and retain evidence and instrumentalities of a crime
for a reasonable time, and to examine, analyze, and test them.
b. List and Describe the Objects
The tangible objects listed below may be named and seized as the objects
of the search when they are, themselves, instrumentalities, fruits, or
evidence of crime. Depending on the facts of the case, the list may be
long or very
short. The affidavit should describe the specific tangible objects with
as much particularity as the facts allow. The following paragraphs are
designed to be expansive and all-inclusive for those cases in which the
government has probable cause to search and seize all computer hardware,
software, documentation, and data security devices (including passwords)
on site. However, most cases will call for a much more limited list
Computer hardware consists of all equipment which can collect, analyze,
create, display, convert, store, conceal, or transmit electronic,
magnetic, optical, or similar computer impulses or data. Hardware
includes (but is not limited to) any data-processing devices (such as
central processing units, memory typewriters, and self~-contained
"laptop" or "notebook" computers); internal and peripheral storage
devices (such as fixed disks, external hard disks, floppy disk drives and
diskettes, tape drives and tapes, optical storage devices,
transistor-like binary devices, and other memory storage devices),
peripheral input/output devices (such as keyboards, printers, scanners,
plotters, video display monitors, and optical readers); and related
communications devices (such as modems, cables and connections, recording
equipment, RAM or ROM units, acoustic couplers, automatic dialers, speed
dialers, programmable telephone dialing or signaling devices, and
electronic tone-generating devices); as well as any devices, mechanisms,
or parts that can be used to restrict access to computer hardware (such
as physical keys and locks).
Computer software is digital information which can be interpreted by a
computer and any of its related components to direct the way they work.
Software is stored in electronic, magnetic, optical, or other digital
form. It commonly includes programs to run operating
systems, applications (like word-processing, graphics, or spreadsheet
programs), utilities, compilers, interpreters, and communications
Computer-related documentation consists of written, recorded, printed, or
electronically stored material which explains or illustrates how to
configure or use computer hardware, software, or other related items.
(4) Passwords and Data Security Devices
Computer passwords and other data security devices are designed to
restrict access to or hide computer software, documentation, or data.
Data security devices may consist of hardware, software, or other
programming code. A password (a string of alpha-numeric characters)
usually operates as a sort of digital key to "unlock" particular data
security devices. Data security hardware may include encryption devices,
chips, and circuit boards. Data security software or digital code may
include programming code that creates "test" keys or "hot" keys, which
perform certain pre-set security functions when touched. Data security
software or code may also encrypt, compress, hide, or "booby-trap"
protected data to make it inaccessible or unusable, as well as reverse
the process to restore it.
2. Information: Records, Documents, Data
For clarity, most "information" warrants need one paragraph listing all
the kinds of evidence they seek (content). Then they need a separate
paragraph detailing all the various forms this evidence could take, so it
is clear that all forms apply to all records. Most warrants will need
another section (in appropriate cases) explaining why agents need to
seize data storage devices for
off-site searches. It may also be necessary to ask the magistrate for
permission to take some peripheral hardware and software even though it
does not directly contain evidence.
a. Describe the Content of Records, Documents, or other Information
If the object of the search is information which has been recorded in
some fashion (including digital form), it is important to begin with the
content of the record and not with its form. Depending on the case, the
probable cause may be limited to one very specific document or extend to
every record in a wholly criminal enterprise. Describe the content of the
document with the same specificity and particularity as for paper
Based on the facts as recited above, your affiant has probable cause to
believe the following records are located at [the suspect's] residence
and contain evidence of the crimes described:
A letter dated July 31, 1991 from [the suspect] to his mother.
Tax records and all accompanying accounts, records, checks, receipts,
statements, and related information for tax year 1991.
Lists of illegal or unauthorized access codes or passwords, including
(but not limited to) telephone, credit card, and computer access codes.
All records relating to [the suspect's] drug trafficking, including (but
not limited to) lists of customers and related identifying information;
types, amounts, and prices of drugs trafficked as well as dates, places,
and amounts of specific transactions; any information related to sources
of narcotic drugs (including names, addresses, phone numbers, or any
other identifying information); any information recording [the suspect's]
schedule or travel from 1988 to present; all bank records, checks, credit
card bills, account information, and other financial records.
b. Describe the Form which the Relevant Information May Take
If you know the records are stored on a computer or in some other digital
form, you should limit the scope of the search to digital records. If you
cannot determine in advance the form of the records (or if the records
are in several different forms) the following language is a starting
point. BUT BE SURE TO ELIMINATE ANYTHING WHICH DOES NOT APPLY TO YOUR
CASE. Once again, because cases which have nothing else in common may all
have digital evidence, the following list is extremely broad. For
example, in child pornography or counterfeiting cases, the non-digital
evidence may be photographs, films, or drawings. But in drug cases, tax
cases, or computer crimes, the agents may not be searching for graphics
or other pictures.
The terms "records," "documents," and "materials" include all of the
foregoing items of evidence in whatever form and by whatever means such
records, documents, or materials, their drafts, or their modifications
may have been created or stored, including (but not limited to) any
handmade form (such as writing, drawing, painting, with any implement on
any surface, directly or indirectly); any photographic form (such as
microfilm, microfiche, prints, slides, negatives, videotapes, motion
pictures, photocopies); any mechanical form (such as phonograph records,
printing, or typing); any electrical, electronic, or magnetic form (such
as tape recordings, cassettes, compact discs, or any information on an
electronic or magnetic storage device, such as floppy diskettes, hard
disks, backup tapes, CD-ROMs, optical discs, printer buffers, smart
cards, memory calculators, electronic dialers, Bernoulli drives, or
electronic notebooks, as well as printouts or readouts from any magnetic
c. Electronic Mail: Searching and Seizing Data from a BBS Server under 18
In some situations, you may know or suspect that the target's computer is
the server for an electronic bulletin board service (BBS). If you need to
seize the computer, the data on it, or backups of the data, consider the
applicability of 18 U.S.C. 2703. (See "STORED ELECTRONIC
COMMUNICATIONS," supra p. 85.) If the statute applies and there is or may
be qualifying e-mail on the computer, consider whether the government has
probable cause to believe that all or any of it is evidence of crime.
Your affiant has probable cause to believe that [the suspect]'s computer
operates, in part, as the server (or communications center) of an
electronic bulletin board service ("BBS"). This BBS [appears to]
provide[s] "electronic communication service" to other persons, and [may]
contain[s] their "electronic communications," which may have been in
"electronic storage" on [the suspect's] computer for less than 180 days
(as those terms are defined in 18 U.S. C. 2510). The affiant is aware of
the requirements of Title 18 U.S.C. 2703 describing law enforcement's
obligations regarding electronic communications in temporary storage
incident to transmission, as defined in that statute.
(1) If All the E-Mail is Evidence of Crime
If the whole BBS is dedicated to criminal enterprise (such as a specialty
"porn board" or "pirate board"), the facts may support searching and
seizing all the e-mail, including the electronic mail which qualifies
under the statute.
[Your affiant, as an undercover subscriber and user of (the suspect's)
BBS network, has learned that it is dedicated to exchanging illegal
copies of computer software and stolen access codes among users. All
users are asked to furnish pirated software products and active access
codes (phone cards, credit cards, PBX codes, and computer passwords) in
return for the privilege of illegally downloading from the BBS other
illegal software or codes they may choose. Your affiant has used the
electronic mail services of the BBS, and knows
that the subscribers use it primarily to share information about other
sources of illegal software and about how to use stolen access codes and
computer passwords. Thus, your affiant has probable cause to believe that
any electronic mail residing on the system contains evidence of these
(2) If Some of the E-Mail is Evidence of Crime
If you have probable cause to believe that there will be evidence of
crime in the e-mail of some users and not others, the affidavit and
warrant should distinguish and describe which will be searched and seized
and which will not. In most cases like this, the government will be
focusing on the electronic communications of the suspect/sysop's
co-conspirators. The affidavit should identify the particular
individuals, if possible (by name or "hacker handle"), so that data
analysts will know which e-mail to search and which to leave unopened. In
some cases, the government may have probable cause to search e-mail from
some "sub-boards" of the BBS, but not from others. In other cases, the
magistrate may allow the government to run "string searches" of all the
e-mail for certain specified key words or phrases. There are too many
variations in these cases to draft useful models, but the wisest course
is to address this issue in the affidavit and set out a search and
seizure plan which the magistrate can approve. Please call the Computer
Crime Unit (202-514~-1026) for more specific assistance.
(3) If None of the E-Mail is Evidence of Crime
In some cases. the suspect's criminal uses of his computer are quite
separate from and coincidental to his using it as the server for a BBS.
For example, a sysop who runs a legal bulletin board from his home may
also use the same computer to store personal copies of child pornography,
or records of his drug-dealing business, or a death-threat letter to the
President of the United States. None of these criminal uses has anything
to do with the legal (and perhaps statutorily protected) private
electronic communications of his BBS subscribers--except for the fact
that they reside on the same computer system.
And even when this computer system clearly is an instrumentality of the
suspect/sysop's crime, the government may be obliged to protect the
unrelated, qualifying e-mail of innocent third parties and set it aside,
unopened. In any event, the government should consider and address this
issue with the magistrate and devise a plan which will work in the case
at hand. Call the Computer Crime Unit for more help.
d. Ask Permission to Seize Storage Devices when an Off~-Site Search is
Based upon your affiant's knowledge, training and experience, and
consultations with [NAME AND QUALIFICATIONS OF EXPERT], your affiant
knows that searching and seizing information from computers often
requires agents to seize most or all electronic storage devices (along
with related peripherals) to be searched later by a qualified computer
expert in a laboratory or other controlled environment. This is true
because of the following:
1) The volume of evidence. Computer storage devices (like hard disks,
diskettes, tapes, laser disks, Bernoulli drives) can store the equivalent
of thousands of pages of information. Additionally, a suspect may try to
conceal criminal evidence; he or she might store it in random order with
deceptive file names. This may require searching authorities to examine
all the stored data to determine which particular files are evidence or
instrumentalities of crime. This sorting process can take weeks or
months, depending on the volume of data stored, and it would be
impractical to attempt this kind of data search on site.
2) Technical requirements. Searching computer systems for criminal
evidence is a highly technical process requiring expert skill and a
properly controlled environment. The vast array of computer hardware and
software available requires even computer experts to specialize in some
systems and applications, so it is difficult to know before a search
which expert is qualified to analyze the system and its data. In any
event, however, data search protocols are exacting scientific procedures
designed to protect the integrity of the evidence
and to recover even "hidden," erased, compressed, password~-protected, or
encrypted files. Since computer evidence is extremely vulnerable to
inadvertent or intentional modification or destruction (both from
external sources or from destructive code imbedded in the system as a
"booby trap"), a controlled environment is essential to its complete and
e. Ask Permission to Seize, Use, and Return Auxiliary Items, as Necessary
In cases where you must seize hardware, software, documentation, and data
security devices in order to search and seize the data for which you have
probable cause, ask the magistrate's permission in the affidavit. The
language which follows is general and will be most applicable to
computers which are not part of an extensive network. Of course, if you
have specific information in your case to support seizing auxiliary items
(e.g., the computer hardware is rare; the operating system is
custom-designed), cite those factors rather than using the general
description which follows.
Based upon your affiant's knowledge, training and experience, and [NAME
AND QUALIFICATIONS OF EXPERT], your affiant knows that searching
computerized information for evidence or instrumentalities of crime
commonly requires agents to seize most or all of a computer system's
input/output peripheral devices, related software, documentation, and
data security devices (including passwords) so that a qualified computer
expert can accurately retrieve the system's data in a laboratory or other
controlled environment. This is true because of the following:
The peripheral devices which allow users lo enter or retrieve data from
the storage devices vary widely in their compatibility with other
hardware and software. Many system storage devices require particular
input/output (or "I/O") devices in order to read the data on the system.
It is important that the analyst be able to properly re~configure the
system as it now operates in order to accurately retrieve the evidence
listed above. In addition, the analyst needs the relevant system software
(operating systems, interfaces, and
hardware drivers) and any applications software which may have been used
to create the data (whether stored on hard drives or on external media),
as well as all related instruction manuals or other documentation and
data security devices.
If, after inspecting the l/O devices, software, documentation, and data
security devices, the analyst determines that these items are no longer
necessary to retrieve and preserve the data evidence, the government will
return them within a reasonable time.
f. Data Analysis Techniques
Data analysts may use several different techniques to search electronic
data for evidence or instrumentalities of crime. These include, but are
not limited to the following: examining file directories and
subdirectories for the lists of files they contain; "opening" or reading
the first few "pages" of selected files to determine their contents;
scanning for deleted or hidden data; searching for key words or phrases
3. Stipulation for Returning Original Electronic Data
In some cases, you may want to return data storage devices which contain
original electronic evidence to the suspect and keep "bit-stream" or
"mirror-image" copies for processing and for use at trial. For example,
the suspect may be a large business which employs many innocent people
and which needs its computers and data in order to run the business and
pay the employees. If you do wish to return the equipment and data before
trial, consider using some version of the following stipulation to avoid
evidentiary issues. Of course, whether the copies are, indeed, "exact"
copies is a question of fact, and the defense will have to satisfy itself
that the government's copying process was accurate. But if, after
exploring the issue, the defense refuses to
sign a stipulation and cannot be satisfied about the reliability of the
duplicates, you will probably need to keep the originals. (See "Returning
Seized Computers and Materials," supra p. 105, and "EVIDENCE," supra p.
113.) (For a form stipulation, see p. 137.)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
In the Matter of the Search of ____
STIPULATION OF THE PARTIES.
It is hereby stipulated and agreed between ____ and ____ as an individual
and as an agent for ____ that:
(1) the electronic information contained on the [Bernoulli 90-MB disk,
number ____] is a complete, exact, and accurate duplicate of
the electronic information contained on [the hard drive of an IBM
personal computer, serial number ____] [the hard drive of a personal
computer identified as "Fred's" by an evidence tag attached to the top of
the CPU cover, said personal computer bearing no serial number or other
identifying information] [a floppy disk marked with an evidence sticker
as "item number ____, and bearing the initials "_ _ _"]; which
computers/floppy disk were/was seized from ____ on ____, 199_, by agents
of the ____.
(2) the electronic information contained on the [Bernoulli 90-MB disk,
number ____] accurately reproduces the original data described above as
Assistant U.S. Attorney Defendant
[No page 138] [Page 139]
APPENDIX B: GLOSSARY14
BBS -- See "Electronic Bulletin Board Systems."
CD ROM -- CD ROM stands for Compact Disk Read-Only Memory. CD ROMs store
and read massive amounts of information on a removable disk platter or
solid state storage chip. Unlike the data on hard drives and diskettes,
data on CD ROMs can only be read--not altered--by the user. Also called
CPU-- The central processing unit.
DATA -- "A formalized representation of facts or concepts suitable for
communication, interpretation, or processing by people or automated
means." The term "data" is often used to refer to the information stored
in the computer.
DOCUMENTATION -- Documents that describe technical specifications for
computer-related products and how to use hardware components and/or
ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEMS (BBS) -- A bulletin board system is a
computer dedicated, in whole or in part, to serving as an electronic
meeting place. A BBS computer system may contain information, programs,
and e-mail, and is set up so that users can dial the bulletin board
system, read and leave messages for other users, and download and upload
software programs for common use. A BBS can have multiple telephone lines
(so that many people can use it at the same time) or a single line where
a user's access is first-come, first-served. BBSs can have several levels
of access, sometimes called "sub-boards" or "conferences." Access to the
different conferences is controlled by the system operator with a
password system. A single user may have several different passwords, one
for each different level or conference. A user may store documents, data,
programs, messages, and even photographs in the different levels of the
BBS. A bulletin board system may be located anywhere telephone lines go.
14 All quotations in this Glossary are taken from Webster's Dictionary of
Computer Terms (3d ed. 1988).
ELECTRONIC MAIL -- Electronic mail provides for the transmission of
messages and files between computers over a communications network.
Sending information in this way is similar in some ways to mailing a
letter through the postal service. The messages are sent from one
computer through a network server to the electronic address of another
specific computer or to a series of computers of the sender's choice. The
transmitted messages (and attached files) are either stored at the
computer of the addressee (such as someone's personal computer) or at the
mail server (a machine dedicated, at least in part, to storing mail), and
will remain there until the addressee retrieves the mail from the server.
When people "pick up" e-mail from the mail server, they usually receive
only a copy of their mail, and the stored message is maintained in the
mail server until the addressee deletes it. (Some systems allow senders
to delete mail on the server before delivery.) Of course, deleted mail
may sometimes be recovered by "undeleting" the message (if not yet
overwritten) or by obtaining a backup copy (if the server was backed up
before the message was deleted).
FAX PERIPHERAL -- A device, normally inserted as an internal card, that
allows the computer to function as a fax machine. (An abbreviation of
FILE SERVER -- A file server is a computer on a network that stores the
programs and data files shared by the users of the network. A file server
is the nerve center of the network, and also acts as a remote disk drive,
enabling users to store information. It can be physically located in
another judicial district from the suspect's machine.
FLOPPY DISK DRIVE -- A drive that reads from or writes to separate
diskettes which the user inserts. Information is stored on the diskettes
themselves, not on the drive.
HARD DISK DRIVE -- A storage device based on a fixed, permanently mounted
disk drive. It may be either internal (part of the computer itself) or
external (a separate but connected component). Both applications and data
may be stored on the disk.
HARDWARE -- "The physical components or equipment that make up a computer
system..." Examples include keyboards, monitors, and printers.
INPUT/OUTPUT DEVICE -- A piece of equipment which sends data to, or
receives data from, a computer. Keyboards, monitors, and printers are all
common I/O devices.
LASER DISK -- Similar to a CD ROM drive but uses lasers to read and
sometimes write information.
MODEM -- A device ("modulate/demodulate") which allows one computer to
communicate with another computer, normally over standard telephone
lines. It converts the computer's digital information to analogue signals
for outgoing telephone transmission, and reverses the conversion for
incoming messages. Modems may be either part of (internal) or external to
MOUSE -- A pointing device that controls input by moving a cursor or
other figure on the screen. Normally, the user points to an object on the
screen and then presses a button on the mouse to indicate her selection.
NETWORK -- "A system of interconnected computer systems and terminals."
PRINTER -- A number of technologies exist, using various techniques. The
most common types of computer printers are:
1. Band - a rotating metal band is impacted as it spins;
2. Daisy wheel - a small print wheel containing the form of each
character rotates and hits the paper, character by character;
3. Dot matrix - characters and graphics are created by pins hitting the
ribbon and paper;
4. Ink jet - injects (sprays) ink onto the paper;
5. Laser - electrostatically charges the printed page and applies toner;
6. Plotter - moves ink pens over the paper surface, typically used for
large engineering and architectural drawings.
7. Thermal - a hot printer head contacts special paper that reacts to
SCANNER -- Any optical device which can recognize characters on paper
and, using specialized software, convert them into digital form.
SERVER -- See "File Server."
SOFTWARE -- "The programs or instructions that tell a computer what to
do." This includes operating system programs which control the basic
functions of the computer system (such as Microsoft's Disk Operating
System--"MS-DOS"--that controls IBM-compatible PCs) and applications
programs which enable the computer to produce useful work (e.g., a word
processing program such as WordPerfect).
SYSOP -- See "System Administrator."
SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR -- The individual responsible for assuring that the
computer network is functioning properly. He is often responsible for
computer security as well.
SYSTEM OPERATOR -- See "System Administrator."
VOICE-MAIL SYSTEMS -- A voice-mail system is a complex phone answering
machine (run by a computer) which allows individuals to send and receive
telephone voice messages to a specific "mailbox" number. A person can
call the voice-mail system (often a 1-800 number) and leave a message in
a particular person's mailbox, retrieve messages left by other people, or
transfer one message to many different mailboxes in a list. Usually,
anyone can leave messages, but it takes a password to pick them up or
change the initial greeting. The system turns the user's voice into
digital information and stores it until the addressee erases it or
another message overwrites it. Criminals sometimes use voice mailboxes
(especially, if they can beat the password, those of unsuspecting people)
as remote deaddrops for information that may be valuable in a criminal
case. The server for the voice mailboxes is usually located in the
message system computer of the commercial vendor which supplies the
voice-mail service. Sometimes it can be found on the
customer~-organization's computer server at the location called. Voice
mail messages can be written on magnetic disk or remain in the computer's
memory, depending on the vendor's system.
[No page 142] [Page 143]
APPENDIX C: FEDERAL EXPERTS FOR COMPUTER CRIME INVESTIGATIONS
The following is a list of some federal resources in alphabetical order:
1. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Forensic Science Laboratory
1401 Research Blvd. Rockville, MD 20850 301-217-5717
2. Drug Enforcement Administration Chief, Technical Operations Section
8199 Backlick Road Lorton, VA 20079 703-557-8250
3. Federal Bureau of Investigation Computer Crime Squad Washington
Metropolitan Field Office 7799 Leesburg Pike Suite 200, South Tower Falls
Church, VA 22043 202-324-9164
4. Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory Division 9th and
Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20535 202-324-3000
5. Internal Revenue Service SCER Program Coordinator Criminal
Investigation Division CI:R:I Room 2246 1111 Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20224 202-535-9130
United States Air Force Computer Crime Division Office of Special
Investigations HQ AFOSI/IVSC Bolling Air Force Base Washington, DC
United States Secret Service Electronic Crimes Branch 1310 L Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005 202-435-7700
COMPUTER SEARCH AND SEIZURE WORKING GROUP
The following agencies and individuals contributed to these guidelines.
* Designates those no longer in government service.
United States Department of Defense
United States Air Force
Computer Crime Division Office of Special Investigations HQ AFOSI/IVSC
Bolling AFB Washington, DC 20332-6001 202-767-5847
Jim Christy, Chief
United States Department of Justice
Kevin Di Gregory, Deputy Assistant Attorney General
Robert Litt, Deputy Assistant Attorney General
[Page 146] General Litigation and Legal Advice Section 1001 G Street,
N.W., Suite 200 Washington, DC 20001 202-514-1026
Mary C. Spearing, Chief Scott Charney, Chief, Computer Crime Unit Martha
Stansell-Gamm, Working Group Chair Laura Blumenfeld William D. Braun
William C. Brown Elena Duarte Gerald Grzenda Annette Long Stevan Mitchell
Michael J. Rhim Daniel Schneider Joshua Silverman Phillip Talbert * Peter
Toren George Toscas Candice Will Paula Wolff
Office of Professional Development and Training 1001 G Street, N.W.,
Suite 250 Washington, DC 20001 202-514-1323
Drug Enforcement Administration
Criminal Law Section Office of the Chief Counsel 700 Army Navy Drive,
West Bldg. Arlington, VA 22202 202-307-8014
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Computer Analysis and Response Team Laboratory Division, Room 3218 9th
and Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20535 202-324-2104
Steve McFall, Chief Mike Noblett
Computer Crime Squad Washington Metropolitan Field Office 7799 Leesburg
Pike Suite 200, South Tower Falls Church, VA 22043 202-324-9164
James Settle, Chief *
Criminal Law Section Main Justice Bldg., Room 4625 10th and Constitution
Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20530 202-514-2832
United States Attorneys Offices
Northern District of California 450 Golden Gate Ave., 11th Floor Box
36055 San Francisco, CA 94102 415-556-4229
Robert K. Crowe
Southern District of California 940 Front St., Room 5-N-I9 San Diego, CA
Mitchell D. Dembin
Northern District of Georgia Richard Russell Bldg., Room 1800 75 Spring
Street Atlanta, GA 30335 404-331-6954
Kent Alexander, United States Attorney Randy Chartash
Southern District of New York One St. Andrews Plaza New York, NY 10007
Steve Fishbein *
Eastern District of Virginia 600 E. Main St., Suite 1800 Richmond, VA
United States Department of the Treasury
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Forensic Science Laboratory 1401 Research Blvd. Rockville, MD 20850
Systems Operation/Software Engineering Support Branches 650 Massachusetts
Ave., N.W., Room 6004 Washington, DC 20226 202-927-6095
Dan Lofton Michael Park
Internal Revenue Service
Criminal Investigation Division 1111 Constitution Ave., N.W., Room 2246
Washington, DC 20224 202-535-9130
Timothy Whitley, Senior Analyst
Criminal Investigation Training Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
Building 69, Third Floor Glynco, GA 31524 912-267-2378
Dan Duncan, Attorney Chuck Rehling, Special Agent
Seized Computer & Evidence Recovery Specialists Computer Investigative
Specialists 515 N. Sam Houston Pkwy., East Mail Stop 9123 NW Houston, TX
Ken Scales, Special Agent
United States Customs Service
Office of Investigative Programs Special Investigations Division 1301
Constitution Ave., N.W., Room 6130 Washington, DC 20229 202-377-9283
John Seither, Senior Special Agent
United States Secret Service
Electronic Crimes Branch Financial Crimes Division 1310 L Street, N.W.,
Room 200 Washington, DC 20005 202-435-7700
Jack Lewis Tom Moyle
[No page 152] [Page 153]
APPENDIX E: STATUTORY POPULAR NAME TABLE
Access Device Fraud Statute ..... . . . . . . . . . . . 18 U.S.C. 1029
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act .......................... 18 U.S.C. 1030
No-Knock Statute ........ .................. 18 U.S.C. 3109
Privacy Protection Act ....................... 42 U.S.C. 2000aa
Stored Communications Access ................. 18 U.S.C. 2701, et seq.
Wiretap Statute ("Title III") ................ 18 U.S.C. 2510, et seq.
[No page 154] [Page 155]
APPENDIX F: TABLE OF AUTHORITIES
Cases [number following case is page number on which case is cited]
Abel v. United States, 362 U.S. 217 (1960) 36
Aguilar v. Texas, 378 U.S. 108 (1964) 27
Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463 (1976) 30, 37, 38
Application of Commercial Inv. Co., 305 F. Supp. 967 (S.D.N.Y. 1969) 37
Blair v. United States, 665 F.2d 500 (4th Cir. 1981) 11
Blinder. Robinson & Co. v. United States, 897 F.2d 1549, 46 CrL 1537
(10th Cir. 1990) 107
DeMassa v. Nunez, 747 F.2d 1283 (9th Cir. 1984) 43
Donovan v. A.A. Beiro Construction Co., Inc., 746 F.2d 894 (D.C. Cir.
Floyd v. United States, 860 F.2d 999 (1Oth Cir. 1988) 106
Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969) 15
Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 47 CrL 2135 (1990) 9
Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 47 CrL 2177 (1990) 16, 17
In Re Grand Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum Dated November 15, 1993, 846 F.
Supp. 11, 54 CrL 1506 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) 98
In Re Grand Jury Subpoenas, 926 F.2d 847 (9th Cir. 1991) 53
In Re Southeastern Equipment Co. Search Warrant, 746 F. Supp.1563 (S.D.
Ga. 1990) 105
Klitzman v. Krut, 744 F.2d 955 (3d Cir. 1984) 40
Lafayette Academy, Inc., Application of, 610 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1979) 53,
Lambert v. Polk County, Iowa, 723 F. Supp. 128 (S.D. Iowa 1989) 80
Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192 (1927) 37
Marvin v. United States, 732 F.2d 669 (8th Cir. 1984) 58
Matter of Search of Kitty's East, 905 F.2d 1367 (10th Cir. 1990) 106. 107
Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978) 10
Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. United States, 713 F. Supp. 1308 (D.
Minn. 1989) 80
National City Trading Corp. v. United States, 635 F.2d 1020 (2d Cir.
National Federation of Federal Employees v. Weinberger, 818 F.2d 935
(D.C. Cir. 1987) 19
Naugle v. Witney, 755 F. Supp. 1504 (D. Utah 1990) 58
O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987) 18, 19, 21
Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817 (1974) 71
Pleasant v. Lovell, 876 F.2d 787 (10th Cir. 1989) 24
Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973) 12, 13
Securities and Exchange Commission v. McGoff, 647 F.2d 185 (D.C. Cir.),
cert. denied, 452 U.S. 963 (1981) 71
Steele v. United States, 267 U.S. 498 (1925) 96
Steve Jackson Games. Inc. v. U.S. Secret Service, 816 F. Supp. 432 (W.D.
Tex. 1993), appeal filed on other grounds, (Sept. 17, 1993) 82, 83, 88
Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730 (1983) 11
United States Postal Service v. C.E.C. Services, 869 F.2d 184 (2d Cir.
United States v. Agrusa, 541 F.2d 690 (8th Cir. 1976) cert. denied, 429
U.S. 1045 (1977) 101
United States v. Aguilar, 883 F.2d 662 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 498
U.S. 1046 (1991) 24
United States v. Arias, 923 F.2d 1387 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 112 S.
Ct. 130 (1991) 10
United States v. Barrett, 725 F. Supp. 9 (D.D.C. 1989) 100
United States v. Bentley, 825 F.2d 1104 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 484
U.S. 901 (1987) 56, 58, 98
United States v. Beusch, 596 F.2d 871 (9th Cir. 1979) 58
United States v. Bilanzich, 771 F.2d 292 (7th Cir. 1985) 20
United States v. Block, 590 F.2d 535 (4th Cir. 1978) 15, 18
United States v. Blok, 188 F.2d 1019 (D.C. Cir. 1951) 21
United States v. Boyette, 299 F.2d 92 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 369 U.S.
844 (1962) 28
United States v. Brown, 556 F.2d 304 (5th Cir. 1977) 100
United States v. Bustamante-Gamez, 488 F.2d 4 (9th Cir. 1973), cert.
denied, 416 U.S. 970 (1974) 100
United States v. Caballos, 812 F.2d 42 (2d Cir. 1987) 13
United States v. Carter, 566 F.2d 1265 (5th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 436
U.S. 956 (1978) 102
United States v. Darensbourg, 520 F.2d 985 (5th Cir. 1975) 96
United States v. David, 756 F. Supp. 1385 (D. Nev. 1991) 9, 11, 14, 54
United States v. Duran, 957 F.2d 499, 51 CrL 1009 (7th Cir. 1992) 17
United States v. Fawole, 785 F.2d 1141 (4th Cir. 1986) 59
United States v. Francis, 646 F.2d 251 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S.
1082 (1981) 101
United States v. Gargiso, 456 F.2d 584 (2d Cir. 1972) 20
United States v. Griffin, 530 F.2d 739 (7th Cir. 1976) 13
United States v. Henson, 848 F.2d 1374 (6th Cir. 1988),
cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1005 (1989) 57
United States v. Hillyard, 677 F.2d 1336 (9th Cir. 1982) 84
United States v. Houle, 603 F.2d 1297 (8th Cir. 1979) 11
United States v. Johns, 948 F.2d 599, 50 CrL 1224 (9th Cir. 1991), cert.
denied, 112 S. Ct. 3046 (1992) 35
United States v. Judd, 687 F. Supp. 1052 (N.D. Miss. 1988), aff'd 889
F.2d 1410 (5th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 494 U.S. 1036 (1989) 93
United States v. Korman, 614 F.2d 541 (6th Cir.), cert denied, 446 U.S.
952 (1980) 39
United States v. Lefkowitz, 285 U.S. 452 (1932) 37
United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984) 9
United States v. Lindenfield, 142 F.2d 829 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 323
U.S. 761 (1944) 38
United States v. Long, 524 F.2d 660 (9th Cir. 1975) 15
United States v. Lucas, 932 F.2d 1210, 49 CrL 1138 (8th Cir.), cert.
denied, 112 S. Ct. 399 (1991) 53
United States v. Markis, 352 F.2d 860 (2d Cir. 1965), vacated without
opinion, 387 U.S. 425 (1967) 28
United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974) 14, 16, 17
United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980) 13
United States v. Milan-Rodriguez, 759 F.2d 1558 (11th Cir.), cert.
denied, 474 U.S. 845 (1985), and cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1054 (1988) 12
United States v. Murrie, 534 F.2d 695 (6th Cir. 1976) 100
United States v. Musson, 650 F. Supp. 525 (D. Colo. 1986) 53
United States v. Patino, 830 F.2d 1413 (7th Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 490
U.S. 1069 (1989) 11
United States v. Price, 599 F.2d 494 (2nd Cir. 1979) 13
United States v. Prout, 526 F.2d 380 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 429 U.S.
840 (1976) 94
United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606 (1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1062
United States v. Reed, 935 F.2d 641 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct.
423 (1991) 10
United States v. Remigio, 767 F.2d 730 (1Oth Cir.), cert. denied, 474
U.S. 1009 (1985) 100
United States v. Reyes, 798 F.2d 380 (1Oth Cir. 1986) 53
United States v. Robinson, 287 F. Supp. 245 (N.D. Ind. 1968) 29
United States v. Rodriguez, 968 F.2d 130, 51 CrL 1097 (2d Cir.), cert.
denied, 113 S. Ct. 140 (1992) 94
United States v. Ruminer, 786 F.2d 381 (10th Cir. 1986) 101
United States v. Santarelli, 778 F.2d 609 (11th Cir. 1985) 60
United States v. Santarsiero, 566 F. Supp. 536 (S.D.N.Y. 1983) 27, 39
United States v. Sawyer, 799 F.2d 1494 (11th Cir. 1986), cert. denied sub
nom. Leavitt v. United States, 479 U.S. 1069 (1987) 56
United States v. Scheer, 600 F.2d 5 (3d Cir. 1979) 12
United States v. Scott, 578 F.2d 1186 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 439 U.S.
870 (1978) 13
United States v. Sealey, 830 F.2d 1028 (9th Cir. 1987) 16
United States v. Sinclair, 742 F. Supp. 688 (D.D.C. 1990) 101
United States v. Sklaroff, 323 F. Supp. 296 (S.D. Fla. 1971) 96
United States v. Snow, 919 F.2d 1458 (1Oth Cir. 1990) 57
United States v. Stern, 225 F. Supp. 187 (S.D.N.Y. 1964) 28, 29, 38
United States v. Stewart, 867 F.2d 581 (1Oth Cir. 1989) 102
United States v. Taft, 769 F. Supp. 1295 (D. Vt. 1991) 108
United States v. Talkington, 875 F.2d 591 (7th Cir. 1989) 9
United States v. Tamura, 694 F.2d 591 (9th Cir. 1982) 58, 60, 100
United States v. Tropp, 725 F. Supp. 482 (D. Wyo. 1989) 84
United States v. Truitt, 521 F.2d 1174 (6th Cir. 1975) 27, 30
United States v. Turk, 526 F.2d 654 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 429 U.S.
823 (1976) 11
United States v. Valenzuela, 596 F.2d 824 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 441
U.S. 965 (1979) 100
United States v. Viera, 569 F. Supp. 1419 (S.D.N.Y. 1983) 28
United States v. Villegas, 899 F.2d 1324, 47 CrL 1041 (2d Cir.), cert.
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United States v. Whitten, 706 F.2d 1000 (9th Cir. 1983), cert. denied,
465 U.S. 1100 (1984) 39
United States v. Wuagneux, 683 F.2d 1343 (11th Cir. 1982), cert. denied,
464 U.S. 814 (1983) 58
United States v. Wysong, 528 F.2d 345 (9th Cir. 1976) 102
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Voss v. Bergsgaard, 774 F.2d 402 (1Oth Cir. 1985) 53
Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294 (1967) 26, 28, 29, 37
Yancey v. Jenkins, 638 F. Supp. 340 (N.D. Ill. 1986) 27
Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978) 72, 76
18 U.S.C. 1029 36, 77
18 U.S.C. 1030 36, 77
18 U.S.C. 2510 86, 131
18 U.S.C. 2701, et seq. 56, 71
18 U.S.C. 2702 23, 50, 85
18 U.S.C. 2703 85-88, 131
18 U.S.C. 2711 85
18 U.S.C. 3109 100
26 U.S.C. 6103 66
42 U.S.C. 2000aa 41, 42, 56, 72-75, 77-80, 82-84
124 F.R.D. 428 107
Fed. R. Crim. P. 41 1, 26-28, 30, 35-37, 86-89, 92-96, 105-110, 125, 126
Fed. R. Evid. 16 69
Fed. R. Evid. 501 41
Fed. R. Evid. 803(6) 113, 122, 123
Fed. R. Evid. 803(10) 121
Fed. R. Evid. 901 115, 116, 119
Fed. R. Evid. 1001 108, 114, 115, 120
Fed. R. Evid. 1002 114
Fed. R. Evid . 1003 115
Fed. R. Evid. 1006 122
28 C.F.R. 50.10 73
28 C.F.R. 59.1-.6 30, 41
H.R. Rep. No. 647, 99th Cong., 2d Sess. 87
H.R. Rep. No. 1064, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 76, 79
S. Rep. No. 874, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 73, 75, 76, 78
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Rose, Steve Jackson Games Decision Stops the Insanity, Boardwatch, May
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W. LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment (2d ed.
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Webster's Dictionary of Computer Terms (3d ed. 1988) 2, 139
Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Criminal 2d (1982) 29
Computer evidence increasingly plays a role in criminal prosecutions, including fraud and business law violations. A Tulsa criminal attorney says defense of white collar crimes in Oklahoma requires skilled representation by a defense lawyer who knows how to call experts who can respond to allegations based on the work of government computer forensics laboratories.
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If charged with criminal possession a good drug lawyer can help you with your legal problems.
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Child custody is a very emotional part of any divorce or parentage case. One parent is named the primary residential parent (where the child spends the majority of time) and the other parent is the alternate residential parent. Best Child Custody Attorney There are statutory and case law factors that determine who is designated the primary residental parent. The alternate residential parent will have as much time with the child as practical, and child support will be set in accordance with guidelines
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If you need to search cell phone numbers, then use one of these cell phone directory sites. You can search by name or phone number.
Computerized penny stock screener networks have evolved out of early graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and pattern recognition software and this one combines technical chart recognition with earnings, debt, and other fundamental economic data from a company.
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