June 25, 2017

The Gizmodo Warrant: Searching Journalists in the Terabyte Age

Last Friday night, police officers in California used a warrant to search the home of Jason Chen, the Gizmodo blogger who wrote about the iPhone prototype found in a Redwood City bar. Orin Kerr has written an interesting post assessing the legality of the search. I wanted to touch on an important issue he didn’t discuss: Whether the search the police are conducting is unconstitutionally overbroad.

Orin discusses two laws that specifically shield journalists from being the target of a search, the California Reporter’s Shield Law, found jointly at California Penal Code 1524(g) and California Evidence Code 1070, and the federal Privacy Protection Act (PPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000aa. Both laws were written to limit the impact of Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, a U.S. Supreme Court case authorizing the use of a warrant to search a newspaper’s offices. The Supreme Court decided Zurcher in 1978, and Congress enacted the PPA in 1980 (and amended it in unrelated ways in 1996). I’m not sure when the California law was enacted, but I bet it’s of similar vintage. In other words, all of the rules that govern police searches of news offices were created in the age of typewriters, desks, filing cabinets, and stacks of paper.

Now, flash forward thirty years. The police who searched Jason Chen’s home seized the following: A macbook, HP server, two Dell desktop computers, iPad, ThinkPad, two MacBook Pros, IOmega NAS, three external hard drives, and three flash drives. They also seized other storage-containing devices, including two digital cameras and two smart phones. If Jason Chen’s computing habits are anything like mine, the police likely seized many terabytes of disk space, storing hundreds of thousands (millions?) of files, containing information stretching back years. And they took all of this information to investigate an alleged crime (the sale of the iPhone prototype) that could not have happened more than 37 days before the search (the iPhone was found on March 18th), which they learned about from a blog post published four days before the search.

I’m deeply concerned about overbreadth as the police begin to search through these terabytes of information. The police now possess, intermingled with the evidence of the alleged crime they are investigating, hundreds of thousands of documents belonging to a journalist/blogger that are utterly irrelevant to their investigation. Jason Chen has been blogging for Gizmodo since 2006, and he’s probably written hundreds of stories. The police likely have thousands of email messages revealing confidential sources, detailing meetings, and trading comments with editors, and thousands of other documents bearing notes from interviews, drafts of articles, and other sensitive information. Because of Chen’s beat, some of these documents probably reveal secrets of great economic and business value in the Silicon Valley. Under traditional, outmoded Fourth Amendment rules, the police can read every single document they possess, so long as they intend only to look for evidence of the crime, and under the “plain view rule,” they can use any evidence they find of other, unrelated crimes in court against Chen or anyone else.

If the California state courts share my concerns about overbreadth, they should consider embracing the very sensible rules for search warrants for computer hard drives (in any case, not just those involving journalists) adopted last year by the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing. To paraphrase, in cases involving the search and seizure of computers, the Ninth Circuit requires five things: (1) the government must waive the plain view rule, meaning they must agree not to use evidence of crimes other than the one under investigation that led to the warrant; (2) the government must wall off the forensic experts who search the hard drive from the investigating the case; (3) the government must explain the “actual risks of destruction of information” they would face if they weren’t allowed to seize entire computers; (4) the government must use a search protocol to designate what information they can give to the investigating agents; and (5) the government must destroy or return non-responsive data.

These rules are especially needed when the target of a police search is a journalist (in fact, they may not go far enough). And these rules may be required under Zurcher. In justifying the search of the newspaper’s offices in Zurcher, the Supreme Court agreed that when the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure rules collide with First Amendment values, like freedom of the press, the “Fourth Amendment must be applied with ‘scrupulous exactitude.'” The court went on to explain why ordinary search warrants for news offices (remember, back in the age of paper files) meet this heightened standard:

There is no reason to believe, for example, that magistrates cannot guard against searches of the type, scope, and intrusiveness that would actually interfere with the timely publication of a newspaper. Nor, if the requirements of specificity and reasonableness are properly applied, policed, and observed, will there be any occasion or opportunity for officers to rummage at large in newspaper files or to intrude into or to deter normal editorial and publication decisions.

When the California state courts combine this thirty-year-old statement of the law with the modern realities of terabyte storage devices, they should hold that the Fourth Amendment requires magistrate judges to play an integral and active role in the administration of the search of Jason Chen’s computers and other storage devices. At the very least, the courts should forbid the police from looking at any file timestamped before March 18, 2010, and in addition, they should force the police to comply with the Comprehensive Drug Testing rules. In the terabyte age, these rules are necessary at a minimum to prevent the police from interfering with a free press.