Southern District Judge Permits Seizure of Entire Email Account

A recent decision by Southern District Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein analogizes emails accounts to computer hard drives, permitting seizure of an entire email account by a law enforcement agency with a warrant in a money-laundering investigation.

Judge Gorenstein’s decision is at odds with decisions by federal district courts in D.C. (In the Matter of the Search of Information Associated With [redacted] that Is Stored at Premises Controlled by Apple, 2014 WL 1377793 (D.D.C. April 7, 2014)) and Kansas (In the Matter of Applications for Search Warrants for Information Associated with Target Email Accounts/Skype Accounts, 2013 WL 4647554 (D. Kan. Aug. 27, 2013).) In both cases, the courts found the warrants overbroad. In the D.C. case, the judge declined to issue a warrant for seizure of the entire email account on probable cause grounds. In the Kansas case, the court refused to issue the warrant because it was too broad and did not limit the seizure to email specific to the crimes charged.

Judge Gorenstein said

The need to permit the Government to examine electronic materials off-site rather than require it to conduct an on-site search is most obviously demonstrated in the case of a search of a computer hard disk drive (“hard drive”), which is the part of a computer that actually stores files and documents. In the context of suppression motions, courts have routinely upheld the seizure or copying of hard drives and other storage devices in order to effectuate a proper search for the categories of documents or files listed in a warrant.

We perceive no constitutionally significant difference between the searches of hard drives just discussed and searches of email accounts. Indeed, in many cases, the data in an email account will be less expansive than the information that is typically contained on a hard drive. Therefore, we believe the case law we have cited concerning searches of hard drives and other storage media supports the Government’s ability to access an entire email account in order to conduct a search for emails within the limited categories contained in the warrant.

The case is In the Matter of a Warrant for All Content and Other Information Associated With the Email Account Maintained at Premises Controlled by Google, 14 Mag. 309, S.D.N.Y. July 18, 2014.

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