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United States v. Hunter

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Citation Edit

United States v. Hunter, 13 F.Supp.2d 574 (D. Vt. 1998) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Attorney William Hunter represented an individual arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration; the client told the arresting agents that Hunter was aware of the client's drug-related activities and laundered the client's money through the Connecticut Realty Trust (“CRT”).

Fearing that Hunter would destroy records when he learned of his client's arrest, the agents obtained a search warrant at 1 a.m. the next morning, and executed it at 4 a.m. at Hunter's house where his law office was located. The U.S. Attorney's office devised a protocol requiring the search of Hunter's law files and computers to be executed by two agents of the Customs Service in the presence of an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and that any computerized records be examined later by FBI experts.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

Hunter argued the search was illegal. After noting that law offices are not immune to searches and there was probable cause to search Hunter's office, Judge William Sessions turned to defendant's claim that since computers were not mentioned in the affidavits supporting the search warrant, there was no probable cause to search them. To this the court replied:

Today computers and computer disks store most of the records and data belonging to businesses and attorneys. . . . A finding of probable cause is not predicted on the government's knowing precisely how certain records are stored.

Part of the search warrant called for the seizure of all computer hardware, software and documentation; three computers and many disks were taken. This, argued Hunter, violated the Fourth Amendment's requirement that the warrant be specific in what may be seized. Judge Sessions noted that this made their seizure:

vulnerable to a particularity challenge. Computers store vast numbers of records, and access [to] them cannot be obtained with the same ease as examining file folders in an office. Computer records are extremely susceptible to tampering, hiding, or destruction, whether deliberate or inadvertent. Often it is simply impractical to search a computer at the search site because of the time and expertise required to unlock all sources of information. The wholesale removal of computer equipment can undoubtedly disable a business or professional practice and disrupt personal lives, and should be avoided when possible. Still, until technology and law enforcement expertise render online computer records searching both possible and practical, wholesale seizures, if adequately safeguarded, must occur. At the very least, the government should copy and return the equipment as soon as possible. . . . There is no justification for favoring those who are capable of storing their records on computer over those who keep hard copies of their records, however. Computer records searches are no less constitutional than searches of physical records, where innocuous documents may be scanned to ascertain their relevancy.

The court concluded that because the computer search was actually performed in general accordance with the rules laid down by the U.S. Attorney, the seizure was not unconstitutional.

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