|Fourth Amendment :: Warrant|
© Cybertelecom ::
Derived From: Searching and Seizing Computers and Obtaining Electronic Evidence in Criminal Investigations Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Criminal Division, DOJ (2009) (Remember: This is a rendition of the state of the law from law enforcement and reflects their views)
Chapter 2: Searching and Seizing Computers with a Warrant
- Devising a Search Strategy
- Drafting the Affidavit, Application, and Warrant
- Include Facts Establishing Probable Cause
- Describe With Particularity the Things to be Seized
- Establishing the Necessity for Imaging and Off-Site Examination
- Do Not Place Limitations on the Forensic Techniques That May Be Used To Search
- Seeking Authorization for Delayed Notification Search Warrants
- Multiple Warrants in Network Searches
- Challenges to the Search Process
This Chapter discusses the legal and practical rules governing the use of warrants to search for and seize evidence stored in computers and electronic media. Section B discusses the strategic considerations any investigator or attorney should bear in mind before applying to the court for a warrant. Section C discusses the issues that arise in drafting a computer search warrant and affidavit. Section D addresses Forensic analysis of the media. Section E discusses challenges to the search process. Finally, Section F discusses the limited circumstances in which statutes or other rules prohibit the government from using search warrants to obtain computers or electronic media. A sample computer search warrant appears in Appendix F.
B. Devising a Search Strategy
Before drafting a warrant application and affidavit, careful consideration should be given to what sort of evidence a search might reveal. A search of a computer's hard drive can reveal many different types of evidence. A search strategy should be chosen after considering the many possible roles of the computer in the offense:1) A computer can be contraband-either because the computer is a repository of data that is contraband (such as child pornography) or because the computer is stolen property; -
2) a computer can be a repository of data that is evidence of a crime-such as a spreadsheet showing illegal drug transactions, a letter used in an ongoing fraud, or log files showing IP addresses assigned to the computer and websites accessed; or
3) a computer can be an instrumentality of a crime-for example, the computer was used as a tool to hack into websites, distribute copyrighted videos, or produce illegal pornography.
Additionally, in devising a search strategy, investigators should bear in mind both the elements that must be proven should the prosecution go to trial and also the sources of electronic evidence that are relevant to those elements. The typical computer user thinks of the contents of a hard drive in terms of what the computer's user interface chooses to reveal: files, folders, and applications, all neatly arranged and self-contained. This, however, is merely an abstraction presented to make the computer easier to use. That abstraction hides the evidence of computer usage that modern operating systems leave on hard drives. As computers run, they leave evidence on the hard drive- considerably more evidence than just the files visible to users. Remnants of whole or partially deleted files can still remain on the drive. Portions of files that were edited away also might remain. "Metadata" and other artifacts left by the computer can reveal information about what files have recently been accessed, when a file was created and edited, and sometimes even how it was edited. Virtual memory paging systems can leave traces of information on the hard drive that the user might have believed were stored only in volatile computer memory such as RAM and expected to disappear when the computer was shut down. Browsers, mail readers, chat clients, and other programs leave behind configuration files that might reveal online nicknames and passwords. Operating systems and applications record additional information on the hard drive, such as records of Internet usage, the attachment of peripherals and flash drives, and the times the computer was in use. Collectively, this information can reveal to an investigator not just what a computer happens to contain at the time of the search, but also evidence of who has used a computer, when, and how. Obviously, discovering contraband or substantive evidence of a crime on the hard drive will be a frequent goal of a computer search. However, investigators should consider other goals that a computer search might meet. Consider the following examples:
1) It may be necessary to prove that a particular individual put contraband on the hard drive, rather than someone else with access to the computer. This might be shown through evidence that a particular user was logged on, or by evidence that the computer was used shortly after the offense to check the individual's bank account or email account.2) It may be necessary to satisfy the investigator that a virus or other piece of malware was not responsible for the offense. Often, an investigator can establish this by running a simple virus-checking program on an image of the hard drive.
3) It may be necessary to show that a defendant had knowledge of some particular subject. Web browsing history, for example, might reveal that an individual was researching how to build a methamphetamine laboratory.
A prosecutor or investigator should carefully consider the appropriate goals in drafting the warrant so as to ensure that sufficient evidence may be collected pursuant to the warrant.
C. Drafting the Affidavit, Application, and Warrant
An affidavit and application for a warrant to search a computer are in most respects the same as any other search warrant affidavit and application: the affiant swears to facts that establish that there is probable cause to believe that evidence of crime (such as records), contraband, fruits of crime, or instrumentalities of crime is present in a private space (such as a computer's hard drive, or other media, which in turn may be in another private space, such as a home or office), and the warrant describes with particularity the things (records and other data, or perhaps the computer itself ) to be searched and seized. The process of drafting an affidavit and application, then, falls into two general steps: establishing probable cause to search the computer, and describing with particularity the data to be taken from the computer or the computer hardware itself.
1. Include Facts Establishing Probable Cause
The probable cause necessary to search a computer or electronic media is probable cause to believe that the media contains or is contraband, evidence of a crime, fruits of crime, or an instrumentality of a crime. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(c). Evidence of crime can include evidence of ownership and control. See, e.g., United States v. Horn, 187 F.3d 781, 787-88 (8th Cir. 1999) (approving in child pornography case a warrant provision authorizing seizure of "[r]ecords, documents, receipts, keys, or other objects showing access to, and control of, the residence"). According to the Supreme Court, the probable cause standard is satisfied by an affidavit that establishes "a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place." Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983). This requires a practical, common-sense determination of the probabilities, based on a totality of the circumstances. See id. Of course, probable cause will not exist if the agent can only point to a "bare suspicion" that criminal evidence will be found in the place searched. See Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175 (1949). Once a magistrate judge finds probable cause and issues the warrant, the magistrate's determination that probable cause existed is entitled to "great deference," Gates, 462 U.S. at 236, and will be upheld so long as there is a "substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed." Id. at 238-39 (internal quotations omitted).Often, no special facts in the affidavit are necessary to establish probable cause to search a computer. As a general rule, "[a] container that may conceal the object of a search authorized by a warrant may be opened immediately; the individual's interest in privacy must give way to the magistrate's official determination of probable cause." United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 823 (1982). Thus, if a warrant authorizes a search of a premises (for example, a doctor's office) for a particularized list of records (for example, false Medicare bills), then the warrant should authorize agents to search a computer they encounter on the premises if they reasonably believe the warrant describes records that might be stored on that computer. See, e.g., United States v. Giberson, 527 F.3d 882, 887 (9th Cir. 2008) (agents were justified in searching a computer "where there was ample evidence that the documents authorized in the warrant could be found" on that computer); United States v. Rogers, 521 F.3d 5, 9-10 (1st Cir. 2008) (holding that "videotape is a plausible repository for a photo," such that a warrant authorizing seizure of "photos of DW" allowed seizure and review of videotape for such photos). In such a case, it is necessary to establish probable cause to believe that the records will be found on the premises, but it is no more necessary to establish that a computer or other electronic storage media will be found there than it is necessary to establish that file cabinets, piles of paper, or other record storage systems will be found there. In short, the probable cause requirement should not require agents to be clairvoyant in their knowledge of the precise forms of evidence or contraband that will exist in the location to be searched. See United States v. Reyes, 798 F.2d 380, 382 (10th Cir. 1986) (noting that "in the age of modern technology . . . , the warrant could not be expected to describe with exactitude the precise forms the records would take").However, in United States v. Payton, ___ F.3d ___, 2009 WL 2151348 (9th Cir. July 21, 2009), the Ninth Circuit held that law enforcement is not necessarily entitled to examine a computer that may contain evidence that falls within the scope of a warrant. See id. at * 3. In Payton, an officer executing a search warrant that authorized a seizure of drug sales records and other financial records searched a computer capable of storing such records. The court held that because the warrant did not specifically authorize a search of the computer, and because nothing else present at the scene of the search suggested that records falling within the scope of the warrant would be found on the computer, the search violated the Fourth Amendment. See id. Under Payton, it is good policy for prosecutors and agents seeking a warrant in the Ninth Circuit to always seek specific authorization to search computers, though failure to do so will not necessarily invalidate the search.
Probable cause will look different in every case, but in the computer search context a few common scenarios have emerged. They are discussed below.
a. Probable Cause Established Through an Internet Protocol Address
b. Probable Cause Established Through Online Account Information
c. Probable Cause Established Through Off-Line Conduct
In some cases, the defendant's name and address are known through traditional investigative techniques, and agents wish to search the individual's computer for evidence related to the crime. These cases are no different from any other computer search case: the objective of the affidavit is to establish "a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime would be found in computers at" the place to be searched. United States v. Adjani, 452 F.3d 1140, 1145 (9th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). For example, in United States v. Khanani, 502 F.3d 1281, 1290 (11th Cir. 2007), the court found probable cause to search an accountant's computer because the affidavit identified him as accountant for an employer of illegal aliens, stated that a tax return for that employer was found in the trash outside the office, and stated that an agent saw computers inside the office. See also United States v. Flanders, 468 F.3d 269, 271 (5th Cir. 2006) (probable cause to search a computer supported by defendant's "past sexual abuse of his daughter, coupled with his decision to take a digital photograph of that child naked").
Defendants often claim that the facts alleged in the warrant affidavit were too stale to establish probable cause at the time the warrant was issued. Most such challenges have occurred in child pornography cases, and the courts have generally found little merit in these arguments: "When a defendant is suspected of possessing child pornography, the staleness determination is unique because it is well known that images of child pornography are likely to be hoarded by persons interested in those materials in the privacy of their homes." United States v. Irving, 452 F.3d 110, 125 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotations marks omitted); see also United States v. Paul, 551 F.3d 516, 522 (6th Cir. 2009) ("because the crime is generally carried out in the secrecy of the home and over a long period, the same time limitations that have been applied to more fleeting crimes do not control the staleness inquiry for child pornography"); United States v. Watzman, 486 F.3d 1004, 1008 (7th Cir. 2007) (crediting affidavit saying that child pornographers "keep and collect items containing child pornography over long periods of time"); United States v. Newsom, 402 F.3d 780, 783 (7th Cir. 2005) ("[i]nformation a year old is not necessarily stale as a matter of law, especially where child pornography is concerned"); United States v. Riccardi, 405 F.3d 852, 861 (10th Cir. 2005) (five-year old information that defendant sought to convert a Polaroid photograph to a digital format was not stale); United States v. Hay, 231 F.3d 630, 636 (9th Cir. 2000); United States v. Horn, 187 F.3d 781, 786-87 (8th Cir. 1999); United States v. Lacy, 119 F.3d 742, 745-46 (9th Cir. 1997). Courts have also noted that advances in computer Forensic analysis allow investigators to recover files even after they are deleted, casting greater doubt on the validity of "staleness" arguments. See Hay, 231 F.3d at 636; United States v. Cox, 190 F. Supp. 2d 330, 334 (N.D.N.Y. 2002). But see United States v. Doan, 2007 WL 2247657, at *3 (7th Cir. Aug. 6, 2007) (seventeen-month-old information, combined with a lack of information about "the duration of the website subscriptions, the download capability accompanying those subscriptions, the last date Doan accessed the websites, whether Doan downloaded images from these sites, whether Doan owned a computer, or whether Doan had Internet access at his home" insufficient to establish probable cause); United States v. Zimmerman, 277 F.3d 426, 433-34 (3d Cir. 2002) (distinguishing retention of adult pornography from retention of child pornography and holding that evidence that adult pornography had been on computer at least six months before a warrant was issued was stale); United States v. Frechette, 2008 WL 4287818, at *4 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 17, 2008) (sixteen-month-old information stale in a child pornography case).
2. Describe With Particularity the Things to be Seized
a. The Particularity Requirement
The Fourth Amendment requires that every warrant "particularly describ[e]" two things: "the place to be searched" and "the persons or things to be seized." U.S. Const. Amend. IV; see United States v. Grubbs, 547 U.S. 90, 97 (2006). Describing with particularity the "things to be seized" has two distinct elements. See United States v. Upham, 168 F.3d 532, 535 (1st Cir. 1999). First, the warrant must describe the things to be seized with sufficiently precise language so that it tells the officers how to separate the items properly subject to seizure from irrelevant items. See Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192, 296 (1927) ("As to what is to be taken, nothing is left to the discretion of the officer executing the warrant."); Davis v. Gracey, 111 F.3d 1472, 1478 (10th Cir. 1997). Second, the description of the things to be seized should be limited to the scope of the probable cause established in the warrant. See In re Grand Jury Investigation Concerning Solid State Devices, Inc., 130 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 1997). Considered together, the elements forbid agents from obtaining "general warrants" and instead require agents to conduct narrow seizures that attempt to "minimize unwarranted intrusions upon privacy." Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463, 482 n.11 (1976).
U.S. v. Payton, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 15969 (9th Cir. July 21, 2009) (defendant's motion to suppress evidence granted where police executed warrant searching "for drugs, sales ledgers about drugs and financial records," did not find any, then accessed a computer, opened a file, and found child pornography).
b. Seizing Hardware vs. Seizing Information
The most important decision agents must make when describing the property in the warrant is whether the seizable property is the computer hardware or merely the information that the hardware contains. If computer hardware is contraband, evidence, fruits, or instrumentalities of crime, the warrant should describe the hardware itself. If the probable cause relates only to information, however, the warrant should describe the information to be seized, and then request the authority to seize the information in whatever form it may be stored (whether electronic or not).
c. Hardware seizures
Depending on the nature of the crime being investigated, computer hardware might itself be contraband, an instrumentality of a crime, or fruits of crime and therefore may be physically seized under Rule 41. For example, a computer that stores child pornography is itself contraband. See United States v. Hay, 231 F.3d 630, 637 (9th Cir. 2000) (upholding seizure of entire computer as contraband in child pornography case). A computer may also be used as an instrumentality of crime, as when it is used to commit a hacking offense or send threats. See, e.g., United States v. Adjani, 452 F.3d 1140, 1145-46 (9th Cir. 2006) (computer used to send extortive threat is instrumentality); Davis v. Gracey, 111 F.3d 1472, 1480 (10th Cir. 1997) (computer used to operate bulletin board distributing obscene materials is instrumentality); United States v. Lamb, 945 F. Supp. 441, 462 (N.D.N.Y. 1996) (computer used to send or receive child pornography is instrumentality). Although it could be argued that any computer that is used to store evidence of crime is an instrumentality, the reasoning in Davis suggests that in order for a computer to qualify as an instrumentality, more substantial use of the computer in the crime is necessary. See Davis, 111 F.3d at 1480 (stating that "the computer equipment was more than merely a 'container' for the files; it was an instrumentality of the crime").If the computer hardware is itself contraband, an instrumentality of crime, or fruits of crime, the warrant should describe the hardware and indicate that the hardware will be seized. In most cases investigators will simply seize the hardware during the search, and then search through the defendant's computer for the contraband files back at a computer Forensics laboratory. In such cases, the agents should explain clearly in the supporting affidavit that they plan to search the computer for evidence and/or contraband after the computer has been seized and removed from the site of the search. Courts have generally held that descriptions of hardware can satisfy the particularity requirement so long as the subsequent searches of the seized computer hardware appear reasonably likely to yield evidence of crime; in many of these cases, the computers contain child pornography and are thus contraband. See, e.g., United States v. Hay, 231 F.3d 630, 634 (9th Cir. 2000) (upholding seizure of "computer hardware" in search for materials containing child pornography); United States v. Campos, 221 F.3d 1143, 1147 (10th Cir. 2000) (upholding seizure of "computer equipment which may be, or is used to visually depict child pornography," and noting that the affidavit accompanying the warrant explained why it would be necessary to seize the hardware and search it off-site for the images it contained); United States v. Upham, 168 F.3d 532, 535 (1st Cir. 1999) (upholding seizure of "[a]ny and all computer software and hardware, . . . computer disks, disk drives" in a child pornography case because "[a]s a practical matter, the seizure and subsequent off-premises search of the computer and all available disks was about the narrowest definable search and seizure reasonably likely to obtain the [sought after] images"); United States v. Lacy, 119 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 1997) (warrant permitting "blanket seizure" of computer equipment from defendant's apartment not insufficiently particular when there was probable cause to believe that computer would contain evidence of child pornography offenses); United States v. Henson, 848 F.2d 1374, 1382-83 (6th Cir. 1988) (permitting seizure of "computer[s], computer terminals, . . . cables, printers, discs, floppy discs, [and] tapes" that could hold evidence of the defendants' odometer-tampering scheme because such language "is directed toward items likely to provide information concerning the [defendants'] involvement in the . . . scheme and therefore did not authorize the officers to seize more than what was reasonable under the circumstances"); United States v. Albert, 195 F. Supp. 2d 267, 275-76 (D. Mass. 2002) (upholding warrant for seizure of computer and all related software and storage devices where such an expansive search was "the only practical way" to obtain images of child pornography).
d. Information seizures
Many investigations seek to search computers for evidence of a crime only; the computer might contain business records relevant to a white-collar prosecution, for example, but the computer itself does not store contraband and was not used to commit the crime. The computer is "evidence" only to the extent that some of the data it stores is evidence. See United States v. Giberson, 527 F.3d 882, 887 (9th Cir. 2008) ("Computers, like briefcases and cassette tapes, can be repositories for documents and records.").When probable cause to search relates in whole or in part to information stored on the computer, rather than to the computer itself, the warrant should identify that information with particularity, focusing on the content of the relevant files rather than on the storage devices which may happen to contain them. See, e.g., United States v. Otero, 563 F.3d 1127, 1132 (10th Cir. 2009) (stating that the ability of a computer to store "a huge array" of information "makes the particularity requirement that much more important"); United States v. Vilar, 2007 WL 1075041, at *36 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 4, 2007) ("underlying information must be identified with particularity and its seizure independently supported by probable cause"); United States v. Carey, 172 F.3d 1268, 1275 (10th Cir. 1999) (stating that a warrant to seize evidence stored on a computer should specify "which type of files are sought"); United States v. Gawrysiak, 972 F. Supp. 853, 860 (D.N.J. 1997), aff'd, 178 F.3d 1281 (3d Cir. 1999) (upholding seizure of "records [that] include information and/or data stored in the form of magnetic or electronic coding on computer media . . . which constitute evidence" of enumerated federal crimes). In cases where the computer is merely a storage device for evidence, failure to focus on the relevant files may lead to a Fourth Amendment violation. For example, in United States v. Riccardi, 405 F.3d 852, 862 (10th Cir. 2005), which involved an investigation into harassing phone calls, the court held that a warrant authorizing seizure of all storage media and "not limited to any particular files" violated the Fourth Amendment. Agents should be particularly careful when seeking authority to seize a broad class of information. This sometimes occurs when agents plan to search computers at a business. See, e.g., United States v. Leary, 846 F.2d 592, 600-04 (10th Cir. 1988). Agents cannot simply request permission to seize "all records" from an operating business unless agents have probable cause to believe that the criminal activity under investigation pervades the entire business. See United States v. Ford, 184 F.3d 566, 576 (6th Cir. 1999) (citing cases); In re Grand Jury Investigation Concerning Solid State Devices, Inc., 130 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 1997). A similarly dangerous phrase, "any and all data, including but not limited to" a list of items, has been held to turn a computer search warrant into an unconstitutional general warrant. United States v. Fleet Management Ltd., 521 F. Supp. 2d 436, 443-44 (E.D. Pa. 2007); see also Otero, 563 F.3d at 1132 (warrant authorizing seizure of "any and all information and/or data" fails the particularity requirement).Instead, the description of the files to be seized should be limited. One successful technique has been to identify records that relate to a particular crime and to include specific categories of the types of records likely to be found. For example, the Ninth Circuit upheld such a warrant that limited the search for evidence of a specific (and specified) crime. See United States v. Adjani, 452 F.3d 1140, 1148 (9th Cir. 2006). It is sometimes helpful to also specify the target of the investigation (if known) and the time frame of the records involved (if known). See, e.g., United States v. Kow, 58 F.3d 423, 427 (9th Cir. 1995) (invalidating warrant for failure to name crime or limit seizure to documents authored during time frame under investigation ); Ford, 184 F.3d at 576 ("Failure to limit broad descriptive terms by relevant dates, when such dates are available to the police, will render a warrant overbroad."); United States v. Hunter, 13 F. Supp. 2d 574, 584 (D. Vt. 1998) (concluding that warrant to seize "[a]ll computers" was not sufficiently particular where description "did not indicate the specific crimes for which the equipment was sought, nor were the supporting affidavits or the limits contained in the searching instructions incorporated by reference.").Thus, one effective approach is to begin with an "all records" description; add limiting language stating the crime, the suspects, and relevant time period if applicable; include explicit examples of the records to be seized; and then indicate that the records may be seized in any form, whether electronic or non-electronic. For example, when drafting a warrant to search a computer at a business for evidence of a drug trafficking crime, agents might describe the property to be seized in the following way:
All records relating to violations of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) (drug trafficking) and/or 21 U.S.C. § 846 (conspiracy to traffic drugs) involving [the suspect] since January 1, 2008, including lists of customers and related identifying information; types, amounts, and prices of drugs trafficked as well as dates, places, and amounts of specific transactions; any information related to sources of narcotic drugs (including names, addresses, phone numbers, or any other identifying information); any information recording [the suspect's] schedule or travel from 2008 to the present; all bank records, checks, credit card bills, account information, and other financial records.
The terms "records" and "information" include all of the foregoing items of evidence in whatever form and by whatever means they may have been created or stored, including any form of computer or electronic storage (such as hard disks or other media that can store data); any handmade form (such as writing, drawing, painting); any mechanical form (such as printing or typing); and any photographic form (such as microfilm, microfiche, prints, slides, negatives, videotapes, motion pictures, photocopies).
Mentioning that records might appear in electronic form is helpful for agents and lawyers who read the warrant. However, the courts have generally permitted agents to seize computer equipment when agents reasonably believe that the content described in the warrant may be stored there, regardless of whether the warrant states expressly that the information may be stored in electronic form. See, e.g., United States v. Giberson, 527 F.3d 882, 888 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[t]he format of a record or document should not be dispositive to a Fourth Amendment inquiry"); United States v. Pontefract, 2008 WL 4461850, at *3 (W.D. La. Oct. 1, 2008) (warrant that specified photographs but not computers allowed the search of a computer for photographs because "in today's digital world, a laptop computer is as likely a place to find photographs as a photo album"). As the Tenth Circuit explained in United States v. Reyes, 798 F.2d 380, 383 (10th Cir. 1986), "in the age of modern technology and commercial availability of various forms of items, the warrant c[an] not be expected to describe with exactitude the precise form the records would take." Accordingly, what matters is the substance of the evidence, not its form, and the courts will defer to an executing agent's reasonable construction of what property must be seized to obtain the evidence described in the warrant. See United States v. Hill, 19 F.3d 984, 987-89 (5th Cir. 1994); Hessel v. O'Hearn, 977 F.2d 299 (7th Cir. 1992); United States v. Word, 806 F.2d 658, 661 (6th Cir. 1986); United States v. Gomez-Soto, 723 F.2d 649, 655 (9th Cir. 1984) ("The failure of the warrant to anticipate the precise container in which the material sought might be found is not fatal."). See also United States v. Abbell, 963 F. Supp. 1178, 1997 (S.D. Fla. 1997) (noting that agents may legitimately seize "[a] document which is implicitly within the scope of the warrant - even if it is not specifically identified"). This approach is consistent with a forthcoming amendment to Rule 41(e) (which, assuming no contrary congressional action, is scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2009) specifying that a "warrant under Rule 41(e)(2)(A) may authorize the seizure of electronic storage media or the seizure or copying of electronically stored information."Of course, agents do not need to follow this approach in every case; judicial review of search warrants is "commonsensical" and "practical," rather than "overly technical." United States v. Ventresca, 380 U.S. 102, 108 (1965). When agents cannot know the precise form that records will take before the search occurs, a generic description must suffice. See United States v. Logan, 250 F.3d 350, 365 (6th Cir. 2001) (approving a broadly worded warrant and noting that "the warrant's general nature" was appropriate in light of the investigation's circumstances); Davis v. Gracey, 111 F.3d 1472, 1478 (10th Cir. 1997) ("Even a warrant that describes the items to be seized in broad or generic terms may be valid when the description is as specific as the circumstances and the nature of the activity under investigation permit.") (internal quotations omitted); United States v. Lacy, 119 F.3d 742, 746-47 (9th Cir. 1997) (holding that the general description of computer equipment to be seized was sufficient as there was "no way to specify what hardware and software had to be seized to retrieve the images accurately"); United States v. London, 66 F.3d 1227, 1238 (1st Cir. 1995) (noting that where the defendant "operated a complex criminal enterprise where he mingled 'innocent' documents with apparently-innocent documents which, in fact, memorialized illegal transactions, . . . . [it] would have been difficult for the magistrate judge to be more limiting in phrasing the warrant's language, and for the executing officers to have been more discerning in determining what to seize."); United States v. Scharfman, 448 F.2d 1352, 1354-55 (2d Cir. 1971); Gawrysiak, 972 F. Supp. at 861. Warrants sometimes authorize seizure of all records relating to a particular criminal offense. See London, 66 F.3d at 1238 (upholding search for "books and records . . . and any other documents . . . which reflect unlawful gambling"); United States v. Riley, 906 F.2d 841, 844-45 (2d Cir. 1990) (upholding seizure of "items that constitute evidence of the offenses of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances"); United States v. Wayne, 903 F.2d 1188, 1195 (8th Cir. 1990) (upholding search for "documents and materials which may be associated with . . . contraband [narcotics]"). Even an "all records" search may be appropriate in certain circumstances. See also United States v. Hargus, 128 F.3d 1358, 1362- 63 (10th Cir. 1997) (upholding seizure of "any and all records relating to the business" under investigation for mail fraud and money laundering); United States v. Lamb, 945 F. Supp. 441, 458-59 (N.D.N.Y. 1996) (not insufficiently particular to ask for "[a]ll stored files" in AOL network account when searching account for obscene pornography, because as a practical matter all files need to be reviewed to determine which files contain the pornography).
3. Establishing the Necessity for Imaging and Off-Site Examination
Examining a computer for evidence of crime is nearly always a time consuming process. Even if the agents know specific information about the files they seek, the data may be mislabeled, encrypted, stored in hidden directories, or embedded in "slack space" that a simple file listing will ignore. See United States v. Hill, 322 F. Supp. 2d 1081, 1089-90 (C.D. Cal. 2004) (Kozinski, J.), aff'd 459 F.3d 966 (9th Cir. 2006); United States v. Gray, 78 F. Supp. 2d 524, 530 (E.D. Va. 1999) (noting that agents executing a search for computer files "are not required to accept as accurate any file name or suffix and [to] limit [their] search accordingly," because criminals may "intentionally mislabel files, or attempt to bury incriminating files within innocuously named directories."). Moreover, evidence of a crime will not always take the form of a file. It may be in a log, operating system artifact, or other piece of recorded data that can be difficult to locate and retrieve without the appropriate tools and time. It may take days or weeks to find the specific information described in the warrant because computer storage devices can contain extraordinary amounts of information. See United States v. Hill, 459 F.3d 966, 974-75 (9th Cir. 2006) ("the officers would have to examine every one of what may be thousands of files on a disk-a process that could take many hours and perhaps days.").Because examining a computer for evidence of crime is so time consuming, it will be infeasible in almost every case to do an on-site search of a computer or other storage media for evidence of crime. Agents cannot reasonably be expected to spend more than a few hours searching for evidence on-site, and in some circumstances (such as executing a search at a suspect's home) an extended search may be unreasonable. See United States v. Santarelli, 778 F.2d 609, 615- 16 (11th Cir. 1985). In cases involving large quantities of paper documents, courts traditionally have allowed investigators to remove the documents to an off-site location to review the documents to determine which documents fall within the scope of the warrant. See Santarelli, 778 F.2d at 616; United States v. Hargus, 128 F.3d 1358, 1363 (10th Cir. 1997) (upholding seizure of an entire file cabinet when such seizure was motivated by the impracticability of on-site sorting); United States v. Tamura, 694 F.2d 591, 595-96 (9th Cir. 1982).For similar reasons, courts have approved removal of computers to an offsite location for review. See United States v. Upham, 168 F.3d 532, 535 (1st Cir. 1999) (the "narrowest definable search and seizure reasonably likely to obtain" the evidence described in a warrant is, in most instances, "the seizure and subsequent off-premises search of the computer and all available disks"); United States v. Hay, 231 F.3d 630, 637 (9th Cir. 2000) (seizure of entire computer reasonable because affidavit "justified taking the entire system off site because of the time, expertise, and controlled environment required for a proper analysis"); Guest v. Leis, 255 F.3d 325, 335 (6th Cir. 2001) ("[b]ecause of the technical difficulties of conducting a computer search in a suspect's home, the seizure of the computers, including their content, was reasonable in these cases to allow police to locate the offending files"); cf. United States v. Giberson, 527 F.3d 882, 886 (9th Cir. 2008) (holding that a warrant that "clearly limited the types of documents and records that were seizable" permitted the seizure of an entire computer); United States v. Grimmett, 439 F.3d 1263, 1269 (10th Cir. 2006) ("we have adopted a somewhat forgiving stance when faced with a 'particularity' challenge to a warrant authorizing the seizure of computers"). Moreover, attempting to search storage media on-site may even risk damaging the evidence itself in some cases. Modern operating systems continually read from and write to the hard disk, changing some of the information recorded there; thus, the simple act of using a computer might alter the evidence recorded on the hard drive. Internet-connected computers are additionally vulnerable, because someone at a remote location might be able to access the computer and delete data while investigators are examining it on-site. Thus, the best strategy will generally be to review storage media off-site where Forensic examiners can ensure the integrity of the data. In many cases, rather than seize an entire computer for off-site review, agents can instead create a digital copy of the hard drive that is identical to the original in every relevant respect. This copy is called an "image copy"-a copy that "duplicates every bit and byte on the target drive including all files, the slack space, Master File Table, and metadata in exactly the order they appear on the original." United States v. Vilar, 2007 WL 1075041, *35 n.22 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 4, 2007), quoting Orin S. Kerr, Searches and Seizures in a Digital World, 119 Harv. L. Rev. 531 (2005); see also United States v. Stierhoff, 477 F. Supp. 2d 423, 439 & n.8 (D.R.I. 2007). An image copy cannot be created by simply dragging and dropping icons or running conventional backup programs; the process of making one usually involves opening the computer case and connecting the investigator's own hardware directly to the hard drive. In some cases, investigators will make the image copy on-site; in others, investigators will seize the computer hardware from the premises and make the image copy off-site. To justify the possible imaging and/or removal for off-site review of a computer or other storage media, the Ninth Circuit requires the affidavit to explain why practical constraints might require the seizure of the entire computer system for off-site examination. See United States v. Hill, 459 F.3d 966, 975-76 (9th Cir. 2006) (stating that the affidavit must "demonstrate to the magistrate factually why such a broad search and seizure authority is reasonable in the case at hand"). As imaging and/or removal is necessary in nearly every computer search warrant case, it is doubtful that failure to include such a statement in the affidavit constitutes a Fourth Amendment violation. Nevertheless, although explicitly required only by the Ninth Circuit, it is a good practice for every search warrant affidavit to explain why it is necessary to image an entire hard drive (or physically seize it) and later examine it for responsive records. Including these facts in the affidavit provides a considerable degree of reassurance that the Fourth Amendment will be satisfied. See United States v. Hill, 459 F.3d 966, 976 (9th Cir. 2006); United States v. Hay, 231 F.3d 630, 637 (9th Cir. 2000) ("the affidavit explained why it was necessary to seize the entire computer system" and "justified taking the entire system off site because of the time, expertise, and controlled environment required for a proper analysis"); United States v. Adjani, 452 F.3d 1140, 1149 n.7 (9th Cir. 2006). As noted below, these facts justifying removal of storage media for off-site review should not commit the agents to any particular "protocol" for reviewing the media to find evidence that falls within the scope of the warrant. Instead, the affidavit will simply note that off-site review might be required.
4. Do Not Place Limitations on the Forensic Techniques That May Be Used To Search
Limitations on search methodologies have the potential to seriously impair the government's ability to uncover electronic evidence. "[A] search can be as much an art as a science," United States v. Brooks, 427 F.3d 1246, 1252 (10th Cir. 2005), and the Forensic process can require detective work, including intuition and on-the-spot judgment in deciding, based on what the examiner has just seen, what is the best step to take next. One particularly burdensome restriction that could be placed on a Forensic investigator is the requirement that the investigator limit the search to files containing particular keywords. Forensic analysis may include keyword searches, but a properly performed Forensic analysis will rarely end there, because keyword searches will fail to find many kinds of files that fall within the scope of a warrant. For example, at the time of this writing, a number of file types, such as TIFF files and some PDF files, cannot be searched for keywords. See, e.g., United States v. Evanson, 2007 WL 4299191, at *5 (D. Utah Dec. 5, 2007) (noting that in the search at issue some files "were in 'tiff' format," a "'digital picture of a hard copy document' that has been scanned," and that these files "had numbers as file names, rather than recognizable file names that purportedly described the data in the files"). In addition, keyword searches can also be thwarted through the use of code words or even unintentional misspellings. Law and investment firms-not to mention individuals involved in criminal activity-often use code words to identify entities, individuals, and specific business arrangements in documents and communications; sometimes the significance of such terms will not be apparent until after a careful file-by-file review has commenced. Every Westlaw or LEXIS user is familiar with the difficulty of crafting search terms that find the correct case on the first try; requiring a Forensic investigator to find crucial evidence with a keyword search specified prior to Forensic analysis is just as impractical. Court-mandated Forensic protocols are also unnecessary because investigators already operate under significant constitutional restrictions. As with any search, "the manner in which a warrant is executed is subject to later judicial review as to its reasonableness." Dalia v. United States, 441 U.S. 238, 258 (1979); United States v. Ramirez, 523 U.S. 65, 71 (1998) ("The general touchstone of reasonableness which governs Fourth Amendment analysis . governs the method of execution of the warrant."); Hill, 459 F.3d at 978 ("reasonableness of the officer's acts both in executing the warrant and in performing a subsequent search of seized materials remains subject to judicial review"). Unreasonable conduct can be remedied after the fact, including, as a "last resort," with suppression of evidence. Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 591 (2006).A few magistrate judges issue warrants to search computers only subject to limitations on the way that the seized media may later be examined. For example, some magistrates require that the Forensic analysis of the computer be completed within a set time period; issues related to the timing of Forensic analysis are discussed in Section D.5 below. In addition, some magistrates may refuse to sign a warrant that does not include a protocol specifying how the government will examine seized media to find evidence that falls within the scope of the warrant. See, e.g., In re Search of 3817 W. West End, 321 F. Supp. 2d 953, 962-63 (N.D. Ill. 2004). Neither Rule 41 nor the Fourth Amendment requires magistrates to impose such restrictions, and prosecutors should oppose such restrictions whenever they significantly interfere with the government's ability to obtain evidence that falls within the scope of the warrant. While it might be helpful for the affidavit to contain background information that might justify particular steps taken during the search-such as describing the ease with which evidence can be concealed in a computer, explaining the need to search off-site, or justifying the seizure of commingled records-neither the search warrant application nor the affidavit need contain special restrictions on how agents search for the things described in the warrant. Any significant limitation (such as a restriction to keyword searches) on the techniques the government may use to find evidence that falls within the scope of a warrant is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court has held that "[n]othing in the language of the Constitution or in [the Supreme Court's] decisions interpreting that language suggests that, in addition to the requirements set forth in the text [of the Fourth Amendment], search warrants also must include a specification of the precise manner in which they are to be executed." United States v. Grubbs, 547 U.S. 90, 98 (2006) (quoting Dalia, 441 U.S. at 255). "It would extend the Warrant Clause to the extreme to require that, whenever it is reasonably likely that Fourth Amendment rights may be affected in more than one way, the court must set forth precisely the procedures to be followed by the executing officers." Dalia, 441 U.S. at 258. Furthermore, any limitation on the government's ability to find evidence that falls within the scope of a warrant is inconsistent with the rule that "[a] container that may conceal the object of a search authorized by a warrant may be opened immediately; the individual's interest in privacy must give way to the magistrate's official determination of probable cause." United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 823 (1982).Magistrates requiring the government to set forth a protocol for Forensic analysis have typically cited the Supreme Court's decision in Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463 (1976), in which the Court noted that when search warrants authorize the seizure of documents, "responsible officials, including judicial officials, must take care to assure that they are conducted in a manner that minimizes unwarranted intrusions upon privacy." Id. at 482 n.11. Under Andresen, it is surely appropriate for magistrates to strictly enforce the Particularity Clause in computer cases involving commingled records. However, nothing in Andresen authorizes magistrates to control the manner in which a warrant is executed, and such control was rejected by the Court in Dalia and Grubbs. In addition, the Andresen Court recognized that it is necessary to look at "innocuous documents . . . in order to determine whether they are, in fact, among those papers authorized to be seized." Andresen, 427 U.S. at 482 n.11.Circuit courts have upheld computer search warrants that included neither a protocol (a list of steps the investigator is required to undertake in examining the computer) nor an explanation for the lack of a protocol. In United States v. Giberson, 527 F.3d 882 (9th Cir. 2008), the court upheld a seizure of a computer and a search through it for particularly described records, even though the records were intermingled with other files, without requiring any protocol. The court held that "the potential intermingling of materials does not justify an exception or heightened procedural protections for computers beyond the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement." Id. at 889. In United States v. Hill, 459 F.3d 966 (9th Cir. 2006), the defendant challenged the search of his computer, arguing, among other things, that the warrant was invalid because "it did not include a search protocol to limit the officer's discretion as to what they could examine when searching the defendant's computer media." Id. at 977. The court held that no search protocol was necessary, and that it also was not necessary to explain the absence of a search protocol in the warrant application. Id. at 978. The Tenth Circuit emphasized in United States v. Brooks, 427 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 2005), that while warrants must describe "with particularity the objects of their search," the methodology used to find those objects need not be described: "This court has never required warrants to contain a particularized computer search strategy." Id. at 1251. In United States v. Khanani, 502 F.3d 1281, 1290-91 (11th Cir. 2007), the Eleventh Circuit rejected the argument that a warrant should have included a search protocol, pointing in part to the careful steps agents took to ensure compliance with the warrant. See also United States v. Cartier, 543 F.3d 442, 447-48 (8th Cir. 2008) ("While we acknowledge that there may be times that a search methodology or strategy may be useful or necessary, we decline to make a blanket finding that the absence of a search methodology or strategy renders a search warrant invalid per se"); United States v. Upham, 168 F.3d 532, 537 (1st Cir. 1999) ("The warrant process is primarily concerned with identifying what may be searched or seized-not how"). But see United States v. Payton, ___ F.3d ___, 2009 WL 2151348, at *3-5 (9th Cir. July 21, 2009) (holding that search of computer without explicit authorization violated Fourth Amendment where nothing present at the residence searched suggested that records falling within the scope of the warrant would be found on the computer, and suggesting in dicta that judges issuing computer search warrants "may place conditions on the manner and extent of such searches").If a search strategy is described in the affidavit, the affidavit should clearly state that the strategy is an illustration of a likely strategy that will be employed, but not "a specification of the precise manner in which [the warrant is] to be executed." Grubbs, 547 U.S. at 98. Indeed, one court has held that "search protocols and keywords are not 'material' for purposes of Rule 16(a)(1)(E)," and thus are not discoverable. United States v. Fumo, 2007 WL 3232112, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2007).Finally, if a magistrate judge refuses to issue a warrant without conditioning its execution on certain requirements, and if law enforcement officials choose to execute the warrant anyway, the officials should not ignore the requirements. See, e.g., United States v. Brunette, 76 F. Supp. 2d 30, 42 (D. Maine 1999), aff'd, 256 F.3d 14 (1st Cir. 2001) (suppression appropriate because the government failed to comply with time limits for reviewing seized computers when those time limits were required by the warrant). Instead, law enforcement officials should follow the requirements of the warrant unless they obtain relief from the issuing magistrate or an appropriate higher court. Prosecutors encountering such issues should contact CCIPS  for further assistance.
5. Seeking Authorization for Delayed Notification Search Warrants
If certain conditions are met, a court may authorize so-called "surreptitious entry" or "sneak-and-peek" warrants that excuse agents from having to notify at the time of the search the person whose premises are searched. Neither the Fourth Amendment nor Rule 41 requires an officer executing a search warrant to present the property owner with a copy of the warrant before conducting his search. United States v. Grubbs, 547 U.S. 90, 98-99 (2006). In addition, under 18 U.S.C. § 3103a, a court may grant the delay of notice associated with the execution of a search warrant if it finds "reasonable cause" to believe that providing immediate notification of the execution of the warrant may have one of the adverse effects enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 2705 (except for unduly delaying a trial): endangering the life or physical safety of an individual, flight from prosecution, evidence tampering, witness intimidation, or otherwise seriously jeopardizing an investigation. Under § 3103a, law enforcement authorities must provide delayed notice within a "reasonable period not to exceed 30 days after the date of [the warrant's] execution" or, alternatively, "on a later date certain if the facts of the case justify a longer period of delay." 18 U.S.C. § 3103a(b)(3). This initial period can be extended "for good cause" upon "an updated showing of the need for further delay;" such extensions are "limited to periods of 90 days or less, unless the facts of the case justify a longer period of delay." 18 U.S.C. § 3103a(c).Section 3103a distinguishes between delaying notice of a search and delaying notice of a seizure. Indeed, unless the court finds "reasonable necessity" for a seizure, warrants issued under this section must prohibit the seizure of any tangible property, any wire or electronic communication, or any stored wire or electronic information (except as expressly provided in chapter 121). Congress intended that if investigators intended to make surreptitious copies of information stored on a suspect's computer, they would obtain authorization from the court in advance. For more information regarding section 3103a, prosecutors and investigators should contact the Office of Enforcement Operations ("OEO") at 514-6809.
6. Multiple Warrants in Network Searches
Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(a) states that a magistrate judge located in one judicial district may issue a search warrant for "a search of property . . . within the district," or "a search of property . . . outside the district if the property . . . is within the district when the warrant is sought but might move outside the district before the warrant is executed." Rule 41 defines "property" to include "information," see Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(a)(2)(A), and the Supreme Court has held that "property" as described in Rule 41 includes intangible property such as computer data. See United States v. New York Tel. Co., 434 U.S. 159, 170 (1977). Although the courts have not directly addressed the matter, the language of Rule 41 combined with the Supreme Court's interpretation of "property" may limit searches of computer data to data that resides in the district in which the warrant was issued. Cf. United States v. Walters, 558 F. Supp. 726, 730 (D. Md. 1980) (suggesting such a limit in a case involving telephone records).A territorial limit on searches of computer data poses problems for law enforcement because computer data stored in a computer network can be located anywhere in the world. For example, agents searching an office in Manhattan pursuant to a warrant from the Southern District of New York may sit down at a terminal and access information stored remotely on a computer located in New Jersey, California, or even a foreign country. A single file described by the warrant could be located anywhere on the planet, or could be divided up into several locations in different districts or countries. Even worse, it may be impossible for agents to know when they execute their search whether the data they are seizing has been stored within the district or outside of the district. Agents may in some cases be able to learn where the data is located before the search, but in others they will be unable to know the storage site of the data until after the search has been completed. When agents can learn prior to the search that some or all of the data described by the warrant is stored in a different location than where the agents will execute the search, the best course of action depends upon where the remotely stored data is located. When the data is stored remotely in two or more different places within the United States and its territories, agents should obtain additional warrants for each location where the data resides to ensure compliance with a strict reading of Rule 41(a). For example, if the data is stored in two different districts, agents should obtain separate warrants from the two districts. When agents learn before a search that some or all of the data is stored remotely outside of the United States, matters become more complicated. The United States may be required to take actions ranging from informal notice to a formal request for assistance to the country concerned. Further, some countries may object to attempts by U.S. law enforcement to access computers located within their borders. Although the search may seem domestic to a U.S. law enforcement officer executing the search in the United States pursuant to a valid warrant, other countries may view matters differently. When agents do not and even cannot know that data searched from one district is actually located outside the district, evidence seized remotely from another district ordinarily should not lead to suppression of the evidence obtained. The reasons for this are twofold. First, courts may conclude that agents sitting in one district who search a computer in that district and unintentionally cause intangible information to be sent from a second district into the first have complied with Rule 41(a). Cf. United States v. Ramirez, 112 F.3d 849, 852 (7th Cir. 1997) (Posner, C.J.) (adopting a permissive construction of the territoriality provisions of Title III); United States v. Denman, 100 F.3d 399, 402 (5th Cir. 1996) (same); United States v. Rodriguez, 968 F.2d 130, 135-36 (2d Cir. 1992) (same).Second, even if courts conclude that the search violates Rule 41(a), the violation will not lead to suppression of the evidence unless the agents intentionally and deliberately disregarded the Rule, or the violation leads to "prejudice" in the sense that the search might not have occurred or would not have been so "abrasive" if the Rule had been followed. See United States v. Burke, 517 F.2d 377, 386 (2d Cir. 1975) (Friendly, J.); United States v. Martinez-Zayas, 857 F.2d 122, 136 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing cases); cf. Herring v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 695, 702 (2009) (exclusionary rule is applied in Fourth Amendment cases only if police conduct is "sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system"). Under the widely-adopted Burke test, courts generally deny motions to suppress when agents executing the search cannot know whether it violates Rule 41 either legally or factually. See Martinez-Zayas, 857 F.2d at 136 (concluding that a search passed the Burke test "[g]iven the uncertain state of the law" concerning whether the conduct violated Rule 41(a)). Accordingly, evidence acquired from a network search that accessed data stored in multiple districts should not lead to suppression unless the agents intentionally and deliberately disregarded Rule 41(a) or prejudice resulted. See generally United States v. Trost, 152 F.3d 715, 722 (7th Cir. 1998) ("[I]t is difficult to anticipate any violation of Rule 41, short of a defect that also offends the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment, that would call for suppression.").. . . . .
E. Challenges to the Search Process
1. Challenges Based on "Flagrant Disregard"
Defense counsel will sometimes attempt to use the seizure of storage media or commingled information as the basis for a motion to suppress all of the evidence obtained in a search. To be entitled to the extreme remedy of blanket suppression, the defendant must establish that the seizure of additional materials proves that the agents executed the warrant in "flagrant disregard" of its terms. See, e.g., United States v. Khanani, 502 F.3d 1281, 1289 (11th Cir. 2007); United States v. Le, 173 F.3d 1258, 1269 (10th Cir. 1999); United States v. Matias, 836 F.2d 744, 747-48 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing cases). A search is executed in "flagrant disregard" of its terms when the officers so grossly exceed the scope of the warrant during execution that the authorized search appears to be merely a pretext for a "fishing expedition" through the target's private property. See, e.g., United States v. Liu, 239 F.3d 138 (2d Cir. 2000); United States v. Foster, 100 F.3d 846, 851 (10th Cir. 1996); United States v. Young, 877 F.2d 1099, 1105-06 (1st Cir. 1989).As discussed above in Section C.3, for practical and technical reasons, agents executing computer searches frequently must seize hardware or files beyond those described in the warrant. Defense lawyers sometimes argue that by seizing more than the specific computer files named in the warrant, the agents "flagrantly disregarded" the seizure authority granted by the warrant. See, e.g., United States v. Henson, 848 F.2d 1374, 1383 (6th Cir. 1988); United States v. Hunter, 13 F. Supp. 2d 574, 585 (D. Vt. 1998); United States v. Gawrysiak, 972 F. Supp. 853, 865 (D.N.J. 1997), aff'd, 178 F.3d 1281 (3d Cir. 1999); United States v. Schwimmer, 692 F. Supp. 119, 127 (E.D.N.Y. 1988).Prosecutors can best respond to "flagrant disregard" motions by showing that any seizure of property not named in the warrant resulted from a good faith response to inherent practical difficulties, rather than an attempt to conduct a general search of the defendant's property under the guise of a narrow warrant. The courts have recognized the practical difficulties that agents face in conducting computer searches for specific files, and they routinely approve off-site searches despite the incidental seizure of additional property. See, e.g., United States v. Hill, 459 F.3d 966, 974-75 (9th Cir. 2006) ("the officers would have to examine every one of what may be thousands of files on a disk-a process that could take many hours and perhaps days"); Davis v. Gracey, 111 F.3d 1472, 1280 (10th Cir. 1997) (noting "the obvious difficulties attendant in separating the contents of electronic storage [sought as evidence] from the computer hardware [seized] during the course of a search"); United States v. Schandl, 947 F.2d 462, 465-466 (11th Cir. 1991) (noting that an on-site search "might have been far more disruptive" than the off-site search conducted); Henson, 848 F.2d at 1383-84 ("We do not think it is reasonable to have required the officers to sift through the large mass of documents and computer files found in the [defendant's] office, in an effort to segregate those few papers that were outside the warrant."); United States v. Scott-Emuakpor, 2000 WL 288443, at *7 (W.D. Mich. Jan. 25, 2000) (noting "the specific problems associated with conducting a search for computerized records" that justify an off-site search); Gawrysiak, 972 F. Supp. at 866 ("The Fourth Amendment's mandate of reasonableness does not require the agent to spend days at the site viewing the computer screens to determine precisely which documents may be copied within the scope of the warrant."); United States v. Sissler, 1991 WL 239000, at *4 (W.D. Mich. Jan. 25, 1991) ("The police . . . were not obligated to inspect the computer and disks at the . . . residence because passwords and other security devices are often used to protect the information stored in them. Obviously, the police were permitted to remove them from the . . . residence so that a computer expert could attempt to 'crack' these security measures, a process that takes some time and effort. Like the seizure of documents, the seizure of the computer hardware and software was motivated by considerations of practicality. Therefore, the alleged carte blanche seizure of them was not a 'flagrant disregard' for the limitations of a search warrant."). See also United States v. Upham, 168 F.3d 532, 535 (1st Cir. 1999) ("It is no easy task to search a well-laden hard drive by going through all of the information it contains . . . . The record shows that the mechanics of the search for images later performed [off-site] could not readily have been done on the spot."); United States v. Lamb, 945 F. Supp. 441, 462 (N.D.N.Y. 1996) ("[I]f some of the image files are stored on the internal hard drive of the computer, removing the computer to an FBI office or lab is likely to be the only practical way of examining its contents.").
2. Motions for Return of Property
Rule 41(g) allows an "aggrieved" person to move for the property's return. Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(g). This rule has particular importance in computer search cases because it permits owners of seized computer equipment to move for the return of the equipment before an indictment is filed. In some cases, defendants will file such motions because they believe that the seizure of their equipment violated the Fourth Amendment. If they are correct, the equipment must be returned. See, e.g., In re Grand Jury Investigation Concerning Solid State Devices, Inc., 130 F.3d 853, 855-56 (9th Cir. 1997). Rule 41(g) also permits owners to move for a return of their property when the seizure was lawful, but the movant is "aggrieved by the government's continued possession of the seized property." Id. at 856. The multi-functionality of computer equipment occasionally leads to Rule 41(g) motions on this basis. For example, a suspect under investigation for computer hacking may file a motion claiming that he must have his computer back to calculate his taxes or check his email. Similarly, a business suspected of fraud may file a motion for the return of its equipment claiming that it needs the equipment returned or else the business will suffer. Owners of properly seized computer equipment must overcome several formidable barriers before a court will order the government to return the equipment. First, the owner must convince the court that it should exercise equitable jurisdiction over the owner's claim. See Floyd v. United States, 860 F.2d 999, 1003 (10th Cir. 1988) ("Rule 41(e) jurisdiction should be exercised with caution and restraint."). Although the jurisdictional standards vary widely among different courts, most courts will assert jurisdiction over a Rule 41(g) motion only if the movant establishes: (1) that being deprived of possession of the property causes "irreparable injury," and (2) that the movant is otherwise without a remedy at law. See In re Search of Kitty's East, 905 F.2d 1367, 1370-71 (10th Cir. 1990). Cf. Ramsden v. United States, 2 F.3d 322, 325 (9th Cir. 1993) (articulating four-factor jurisdictional test from pre-1989 version of Rule 41(g)). If the movant established these elements, the court will move to the merits of the claim. On the merits, seized property will be returned only if the government's continued possession is unreasonable. See Ramsden, 2 F.3d at 326. This test requires the court to weigh the government's interest in continued possession of the property with the owner's interest in the property's return. See United States v. Premises Known as 608 Taylor Ave., 584 F.2d 1297, 1304 (3d Cir. 1978). In particular,
If the United States has a need for the property in an investigation or prosecution, its retention of the property generally is reasonable. But, if the United States' legitimate interests can be satisfied even if the property is returned, continued retention of the property would be unreasonable.
Advisory Committee Notes to the 1989 Amendment of Rule 41(g) (quoted in Ramsden, 2 F.3d at 326); see also In re Search of Law Office, 341 F.3d 404, 413-14 (5th Cir. 2003) ("Rule 41(e) does not permit a district court to order complete suppression of seized evidence absent, at the very least, a substantial showing of irreparable harm").Motions requesting the return of properly seized computer equipment succeed only rarely. First, courts will usually decline to exercise jurisdiction over the motion if the government has offered the property owner an electronic copy of the seized computer files. See, e.g., In re Search of 5444 Westheimer Road, 2006 WL 1881370, at *2 (S.D. Tex. Jul. 6, 2006) (declining to exercise jurisdiction over a claim for pre-indictment return of property when government had provided copies of seized computer data); In re Search Warrant Executed February 1, 1995, 1995 WL 406276, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 7, 1995) (concluding that owner of seized laptop computer did not show irreparable harm where government offered to allow owner to copy files it contained); United States v. East Side Ophthalmology, 1996 WL 384891, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 9, 1996). See also Standard Drywall, Inc. v. United States, 668 F.2d 156, 157 n.2. (2d Cir. 1982) ("We seriously question whether, in the absence of seizure of some unique property or privileged documents, a party could ever demonstrate irreparable harm [justifying jurisdiction] when the Government either provides the party with copies of the items seized or returns the originals to the party and presents the copies to the jury.").
Second, courts that reach the merits generally find that the government's interest in the computer equipment outweighs the defendant's so long as a criminal prosecution or forfeiture proceeding is in the works. See United States v. Stowe, 1996 WL 467238, at *1-3 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 15, 1996) (continued retention of computer equipment is reasonable after 18 months where government claimed that investigation was ongoing and defendant failed to articulate convincing reason for the equipment's return); In the Matter of Search Warrant for K-Sports Imports, Inc., 163 F.R.D. 594, 597 (C.D. Cal. 1995) (denying motion for return of computer records relating to pending forfeiture proceedings); see also Johnson v. United States, 971 F. Supp. 862, 868 (D.N.J. 1997) (denying Rule 41(e) motion to return bank's computer tapes because bank was no longer an operating business). If the government does not plan to use the computers in further proceedings, however, the computer equipment must be returned. See United States v. Moore, 188 F.3d 516, 1999 WL 650568, at *6 (9th Cir. Aug. 25, 1999) (ordering return of computer where "the government's need for retention of the computer for use in another proceeding now appears . . . remote"); K-Sports Imports, Inc., 163 F.R.D. at 597. Further, a court may grant a Rule 41(g) motion if the defendant cannot operate his business without the seized computer equipment and the government can work equally well from a copy of the seized files. See United States v. Bryant, 1995 WL 555700, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 18, 1995) (referring to magistrate judge's prior unpublished ruling ordering the return of computer equipment, and stating that "the Magistrate Judge found that defendant needed this machinery to operate his business").