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On appeal: Court strikes conviction, finds warrant defective

Imagine a case in Arkansas or elsewhere where federal criminal authorities obtain a search warrant to seize a large amount of evidence. Although some of that evidence is clearly nonresponsive to their case, they do not purge it, as required by law; rather, they simply sit on it, retaining it indefinitely.

Then, a number of years later, they solicit assistance from another federal agency. That entity, believing the unpurged evidence to be relevant to a separate matter, secures a warrant to examine it. The hunch proves to be true, and the evidence is used to convict an individual on criminal charges.

In a nutshell, that describes a real-life case that was recently considered on appeal by one of the nation's federal appellate courts.

The court's response to the developments leading to the appeal was rendered eminently clear by its ruling and the sharply worded majority opinion that accompanied it. The tribunal threw out the conviction, finding that it rested upon a seizure of evidence not countenanced under the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment requires that specificity attach to a warrant request. The court found that prerequisite requirement lacking in the search of computer data uncovering evidence subsequently used to convict an accountant of tax evasion.

In the first instance, noted the court, government investigators simply seized a large batch of data that they retained indefinitely for use in a later case where probable cause might be developed.

The court's opinion focused with strong disapproval on the government's warrant request and issuance "calling for the seizure of particular electronic data relevant to a different crime." The tribunal likened it to an indiscriminate seizure and holding of personal effects "in the hopes of discovering evidence about previously unknown crimes."

The case outcome served as a strong condemnation of so-called "general" warrants and reaffirmation of the Fourth Amendment's stated requirements concerning warrant application and approval.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Feds' data retention found 'unreasonable,'" Adam Klasfeld, June 20, 2014

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