An Analysis of United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing:
On December 18th, the en banc 9th Circuit will hear oral argument on an important case involving how the Fourth Amendment applies to the search and seizure of computers. You can read the revised panel decision here, and download the petition for rehearing here (5.2mb). I've written a lot about these issues and I worked extensively on them back was at the Justice Department in 1998-2001. Given my writing and past work in the area, I wanted to blog some thoughts about the case.

I. The Facts

  The facts of the case are quite complicated, but here at the basics. The government has been investigating steroid use in baseball, and it obtained warrants for computers owned by the third party company, Comprehensive Drug Testing, that ran the steroid tests. The warrant sought the records of 10 specific players, combined with any "[a]ll manuals, pamphlets, booklets, contracts, agreements and any other materials detailing or explaining" the "administration of Major League Baseball’s drug testing program."

  During the execution of the warrant, much of the day was spent in negotiation between the government and CDT as to exactly where the information was located and how it could be copied. The government ended up not taking any equipment, but it did copy a directory of files, called the Tracey directory, that contained a lot of records beyond the mere 10 specific players sought in the warrant. There is some dispute among the parties (and the judges in the panel opinion) as to why the government copied the entire directory rather than stay onsite and only copy the records of the 10 players. Although the facts are kind of unclear on this, it looks like the government ended up looking through the Tracey directory for evidence within the scope of the warrant, and then discovered lots of stuff involving other players' steroid use and sought to expand the investigation on that basis.

  In this case, CDT and the Major League Players' Association have challenged the search warrants and the expanded investigation, arguing on behalf of the other players' interests. Rather than waiting for charges to be filed, which would then lead to a motion to suppress, the groups are trying to assert the Fourth Amendment rights of the unindicted players outside the scope of the initial 10 players using the procedural vehicle of a Rule 41 motion for the return of property unlawfully seized. The question is, should the motion be granted and the investigation preemptively stopped in its tracks? Or should the government be allowed to proceed?

II. Introduction to the Two Big Issues

  This case is particularly interesting because it ends up at the intersection of two distinct problems that I used to deal with a lot when I worked at the Justice Department. As I noted in an earlier article on computer warrants, computer warrants are usually executed in two stages: the physical search stage and the electronic search stage. First, the government goes and takes the files away (the physical stage), and second, the governments searches through the files obtained for the evidence sought by the warrant (the electronic stage). This raises two distinct problems in cases like CDT. At the physical stage, the problem is how to minimize the intrusiveness of the on-site search at operating third-party business. At the electronic stage, the problem is how to minimize the intrusiveness of the off-site search.