Criminal Law

Baseball Hits a Homer in Plain View Search Case

You may remember the baseball scandal of 2003, where information was leaked that about 100 major league players tested positive for steroid use. Since then, the Major League Baseball Players Association (Association) has been involved in a legal battle with government prosecutors who took the tests as part of a broader investigation on performance enhancing drugs.

Recently, a California appeals court agreed with the Association that the prosecutors improperly and illegally took the drug tests. This was seen as a curveball on the widely-relied on legal principle, the "plain view doctrine."

2003 Drug Tests Results

Steroid use in baseball players was first tested in 2003. The tests were supposed to be conducted as an anonymous survey and even the players weren't supposed to know the results. The plan was that if more than 5% of players tested positive, the testing program would run again the following season and penalties would be imposed for anyone testing positive. Ultimately, more than 5% tested positive, and in the following year players began facing suspensions as a penalty. For some reason, the test results were never destroyed after the 2003 season.

A short time later, the prosecutors wanted the test results to determine whether ten players - including Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield - were telling the truth when they testified in a related investigation. To do this, the prosecutors got search warrants to seize the ten drug tests results.

However, when agents raided the testing companies, they found the results for the ten players on a computer mixed with the results of the 100 players who tested positive. The agents took all the drug-testing information. The Association filed court papers challenging the seizure. The issue in the case turned on what the prosecutors could legally confiscate from the computers.

The Fourth Amendment - Unreasonable Search and Seizure

TheĀ Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures. In order for the government and the prosecution to go into someone's house or car to get evidence, the Fourth Amendment requires that they first get a search warrant. A search warrant is a court order issued by a judge authorizing the police to conduct a search of a person or a location for evidence of criminal activity. It also allows the police to take, or seize, that evidence.

Under the Fourth Amendment, searches must be reasonable and specific. This means that a search warrant must be specific as to the exact place and object to be searched and not attempt to get more information than is reasonable.

Here, the search warrant in this case permitted the officers to examine the testing site only for gathering information about the ten players mentioned in the warrant. Because the officers confiscated additional computer files that were not specified in the warrant, the courts had to carefully examine their conduct.

The Plain View Doctrine

The law requires officers only examine and take what's explicitly is stated and allowed in the warrant, however, there are exceptions. One exception is called the plain view doctrine. This exception allows an officer who is legitimately present at the searched location to fully examine the location (whether it's a house, a car or a room). If something illegal or suspicious is in plain view, the police officer can take it even though the warrant wasn't issued for that particular object.

For example, imagine police officers who have a warrant to search someone's apartment for a stolen TV. If they happen to see drugs laid out in the living room table, they can seize them under this doctrine, even though their warrant wasn't for drugs. If the drugs are hidden in a drawer, the plain view doctrine doesn't allow police to seize them.

Drugs and other physical objects in plain view obviously fall in with this exception. However, it gets trickier when there are computer files involved, such as in this case. The plain view doctrine, designed for a simple and physical situation, doesn't easily carry over to today's digital age.

Seize First, Sort Later

With computer files, use of the plain view doctrine is complex and threatens Fourth Amendment protections. Even when the police have a search warrant to review computer files, these files are hardly ever labeled "illegal assets" or "child porn." Therefore, to meet this challenge, the government usually asks to review every electronic file, in case there is hidden evidence. They seize first and sort out later. However, under the plain view doctrine, once the file is open, plain view allows the police to seize evidence related to any crime, not just the one that served as the basis for issuing the warrant. As you can see, this becomes problematic.

The Comprehensive Drug Testing Decision

In this decision, the court understood the government needed to access all of the computer files and only afterwards can they sort out what is covered by the warrant and return what isn't. However, the court wanted to set limits on this and created a new rule: when a judge grants a warrant for electronic files, the judge "should insist that the government waive reliance upon the plain view doctrine in digital evidence cases."

The court added that if the government doesn't agree to this waiver, the judge must order that the seizable and non-seizable collected data be separated by an independent third party under the supervision of the court, or deny the warrant altogether. Basically, the court is asking the government to give up the plain view doctrine for electronic searches.

This limit on the plain view doctrine may be a homerun for the baseball players, but a big strike for the government. The government will now decide if they want to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can someone object to a search warrant for a electronic files and keep police from seizing the files at that time?
  • What happens when there's a search warrant for electronic files and files of more than one person are stored on a hard drive? Can the police be limited to taking just the files that are described in the warrant?
  • If there's a search warrant for electronic files, does the search warrant have to be specific to the computer or hard drive to be searched? What if there are multiple computers in a location?
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