Monday, February 4, 2019
A former assistant attorney general's conviction for official misconduct was reversed by the Alaska Court of Appeals
Erin A. Pohland, a former assistant attorney general, appeals her conviction for official misconduct, AS 11.56.850(a). The State alleged that Pohland used her position as legal advisor to the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to benefit her personal friend, Skye McRoberts.
Much of the evidence against Pohland was based on information obtained during a search of her personal computer. This computer was seized when the state troopers executed a search warrant for Skye McRoberts’s house — where Pohland was renting an apartment. The troopers were looking for evidence of McRoberts’s potential business and financial crimes, but they seized Pohland’s computer under the theory that McRoberts might have hidden evidence of her crimes in any computer or electronic storage device located within the house — even Pohland’s personal laptop, which was found in Pohland’s apartment.
As we explain in this opinion, the troopers did not have probable cause to believe that Pohland’s personal laptop computer contained evidence of her landlord’s financial and business crimes. Moreover, rather than confining their search to documents and spreadsheets (i.e., computer files that were more likely to contain evidence of
financial and business crimes), the troopers obtained much of the evidence against Pohland by combing through thousands of Pohland’s personal text messages. (Pohland was using her laptop computer as a backup device for the data stored on her smart phone.)
The State was investigating McRoberts and consulted with Pohland
the State alleged that Pohland failed to tell the Agency that she was close friends with McRoberts, that she lived in an apartment within McRoberts’s home, that she had regularly discussed the unionization effort with McRoberts, and that she had assisted McRoberts in this effort. The State further alleged that Pohland’s advice to the Labor Relations Agency was designed to shield her friend McRoberts from any official investigation into the possibility that McRoberts had forged, or had colluded in forging, the employee interest cards.
The search - conducted before there was probable cause to believe Pohland committed crimes - brought these facts to light.
While the troopers were searching Pohland’s apartment, they seized a laptop computer. At the time, the troopers conducting the search presumed that the laptop belonged to Pohland. A subsequent examination of the laptop’s hard drive confirmed this assumption. The laptop contained numerous documents belonging to Pohland, as well as thousands of text messages between Pohland and various people (backup copies of texts from Pohland’s mobile phone).
Many of these text messages were exchanged between Pohland and McRoberts, and some of these text messages appeared to discuss the campaign to unionize the university workers. These text messages became part of the State’s case against Pohland when she was later charged with official misconduct for the advice that she gave to the Labor Relations Agency.
The laptop search was unconstitutional
the search warrant application in Pohland’s case did not assert that McRoberts had committed a computer-based crime, nor did it assert that Pohland was actively participating in McRoberts’s criminal scheme. And as we have explained, the mere fact that Pohland’s laptop was physically located in an apartment within McRoberts’s house did not give rise to the inference that McRoberts could access the contents of the laptop’s hard drive, nor did it give rise to the inference that McRoberts was likely to hide evidence of her own crimes on a computer that was controlled by Pohland.
Accordingly, we hold that the search warrant application did not establish probable cause to seize and search Pohland’s laptop computer...
But when the troopers searched Pohland’s laptop, they did not restrict their search to business and finance documents that Skye McRoberts might have hidden on Pohland’s computer. Instead, the troopers conducted a comprehensive examination of the contents of Pohland’s laptop — including Pohland’s backup of the text messages from her mobile phone. The troopers examined thousands of these text messages, looking for any communication between Pohland and McRoberts, and some of the most important evidence against Pohland was discovered among these text messages.
By searching through these text messages, the troopers exceeded the boundaries of any search that the warrant might reasonably have authorized, given the warrant’s description of what could be seized.