In a potentially huge decision for criminal law in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court in Atlanta held that twenty-one days was an unreasonably long time for law enforcement to wait before obtaining a search warrant after seizing a man’s computer hard drive. Because the circumstances of this case, United States v. Mitchell, failed to justify the three-week delay, the trial court should have suppressed the evidence discovered on the hard drive.
The Fourth Amendment‘s protection against unreasonable seizures both guards us against unreasonable arrests and protects our possessory interests in personal property. Even with probable cause to seize property, the duration of the seizure pending the issuance of a search warrant must still be reasonable. Courts determine reasonableness by weighing the government interests against private interests. This rule ensures the prompt return of property, should a search reveal no incriminating evidence.
In Mitchell, the Court acknowledged the substantial possessory interest people have in their computers’ hard drives. Computers are heavily relied upon for both personal and business uses, storing information including financial information, passwords, photos, e-mails, and countless other items. The Court called the hard-drive “the digital equivalent of its owner’s home, capable of holding a universe of private information.”
On the other hand, in this case, the government’s justification for the delay was less than compelling. Although the eventual search warrant application contained only three pages of original content, the hard-drive was detained for three weeks due to an agent’s attendance at a two-week training program. The agent “didn’t see any urgency” in obtaining the warrant because of the defendant’s admission that the hard drive contained contraband. The Court noted that another agent could have been assigned the task and that the defendant’s admission could have been wrong.
The Court emphasized that this rule depends on all of the circumstances of the case. The opinion noted situations in which the Court would be sympathetic to delays, such as where resources of law enforcement are overwhelmed. However, this case will potentially impact future cases involving seizure of computers, due to the importance (rightfully) placed on the private interests in such property.
The full opinion is available here.