Feb 19, 2010

Computer Searches, the 4th Amendment and Jurisprudence

Police officers search a suspect's computer pursuant to a search warrant authorizing them to look for evidence relating to threats that the suspect allegedly made against a school.  While searching computer files, the officers come across files containing illegal child pornography.  Can the officers "seize" these files and legitimately charge the suspect for possessing child pornography?  Yes, ruled a federal court in United States v. Williams (2010).

Judges frequently have to grapple with how to adapt rules to scenarios that didn't exist when the rules were created.  Search warrants are supposed to describe carefully where police officers can search for the evidence described in a warrant.  But if a computer is the site for a search, police officers may uncover a vast amount of private and personal information about suspects and other people and groups that have nothing to do with the evidence described in a warrant. 

In the Williams case, the court ruled in favor of the police by applying an existing rule (the "plain view" exception to the warrant requirement) to a technology that didn't exist when the rule was created.  The court stated that the police officers seized the child pornography legally because it came into "plain view" as they opened electronic files that might have contained evidence of threats.

The Williams case is a reminder that legal rules have to be somewhat abstract and elastic if we expect judges to apply them in contexts that develop after the rules are created.