Sunday, August 30, 2009

Search Warrants, Steroids, & Baseball

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc. & Major League Baseball Players Association v. United States looked at "the procedures and safeguards that federal courts must observe in issuing and administrating search warrants and subpoenas for electronically stored information."

It all started in 2002 when the "federal government commenced an investigation into the Bay Area Lab Cooperative (BALCO), which [was] suspected of providing steroids to professional baseball players." It is always interesting to see how an investigation can lead to people well beyond the initial scope of inquiry.  Oftentimes the government obtains incriminating evidence against some that is used to move an investigation far from its initial roots.  Those that are trapped by the government may provide pleas with coooperation -- as one way to lower a sentence may be to implicate others. 

In this case baseball players had been tested under terms that "the results would remain anonymous and confidential."  Ten players turned up as testing positive and the government secured a grand jury subpoena in the Northern District of California "seeking all 'drug testing records and specimens'" pertaining to the baseball player's testing. The subpoena was quashed and the government went in with a search warrant for the "records of the ten players as to whom the government had probable cause." Nothing like the government not getting their way and circumventing the order by using a search. But the government did not stop there, as they went to the District of Nevada and also obtained a warrant - a place where the drug tests had been performed. 

In total it ended up being three judicial opinions with the judges "express[ing] grave dissatisfaction with the government's handling the investigation, some going so far as to accuse the government of manipulation and misrepresentation." The government appealed and the en banc court eventually ended up with the case.  A summary of the court's ruling can be found here.

Clearly there are grave concerns here with respect to the government's conduct. But the decision, with its majority opinion authored by Judge Alex Kosinski, also explores how to handle searches of electronically stored files.  On one hand you have a government wanting to obtain information for an investigation and on another hand you have Fourth Amendment's rights to privacy. The court sets forth a framework for how these searches should occur including requiring that "magistrates should insist that the government waive reliance upon the plain view doctrine in digital evidence cases." The decision calls for "[s]egregation and redaction" to be "either done by specialized personnel or an independent third party."  And it goes on from there. The bottom line is that the court is trying to bring us into a new and modern age that understands and considers how best to handle computerized material.

Whether this framework is the best one, remains to be seen.  But it certainly is good to see that a court is recognizing the need to re-examine the plain view doctrine in this computer and information age.


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