Court Rules That Non-Relevant Files Seized Under A Warrant Cannot Be Held Indefinitely

Say the government gets a warrant for some of your data. They come to your house, image your computers, and then hold that data — even the data that isn’t pertinent to their warrant — for several years.

That’s not okay, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled. This is a good ruling, as it limits the ability of the government to hold files that are not party to its situational legal authority.

The ruling — worth reading in its original text here — dismisses several governmental claims relating to why it should hold the data, including that it “must be allowed to make the mirror image copies as a matter of practical necessity and, according to the Government’s investigators, those mirror images were ‘the government’s property.'” The court disagreed.

The government maintained that it must be allowed to search the “mirror images in its possession because the evidence no longer existed” the computer in question. Nope, according to the court. The government also argued that it would be “entirely impractical” to destroy non-relevant files. Denied.

The court maintained that holding the data that was non-pursuant to its original warrant was an “unauthorized seizure” and that the “retention of [the] documents was unreasonable.”

The Washington Post had initial commentary that is worth repeating:

In [The case], the Second Circuit makes clear that the government’s right to overseize is temporary, and that it has no right to continue to retain the non-responsive files indefinitely. The court doesn’t say exactly when the government has to destroy, delete, or return its copy of the non-responsive files. But the Second Circuit does make clear that the government has such a duty: Continued retention of the files is a Fourth Amendment “seizure,” the Court holds, and eventually the retention goes on for so long that the retention is unreasonable. Put simply, individuals have a right to the deletion or return of non-responsive computer files.

This is a hugely important case.

I agree. The average citizen now has, at the minimum, legal precedent for higher protection of their digital effects.

Down with general warrants! Down with bulk collection — even if it is one hard drive at a time!