The conviction of Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the Silk Road marketplace on the Dark Web, has given the Second Circuit a chance to explore how to apply the Fourth Amendment to the search and seizure of stored digital information.
The government seized and searched Mr. Ulbricht’s laptop. Ulbricht, backed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued on appeal that the search violated what is known as the “particularity” requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Under the Fourth Amendment, all warrants must be supported by probable cause and “particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The Framers adopted the requirement that a warrant describe in a particular manner both the place to be searched and what the government intends to seize as evidence of a crime to prevent “general warrants.” A general warrant is a warrant that grants government agents discretion to search any and all property owned by a criminal suspect in an unrestrained and exploratory manner. By contrast, the Fourth Amendment demands that agents tell the court, before searching a suspect’s property, where they plan to search, what they plan to seize, and how the place to be searched and the things to be seized relate to the charged conduct.
Systems with digital information present special challenges for agents attempting to describe the target of their search and for courts attempting to fashion warrants that don’t authorize agents to rummage through wholly irrelevant digital files. The appeals court in U.S. v. Ulbricht recognized that hard drives typically contain a wide range of highly sensitive information, such as “tax records, diaries, personal photographs, electronic books, electronic media, and medical data, records of internet searches, [and] banking and shopping information.” Second, as a practical matter, it is difficult—if not impossible in most cases—for the government to separate sensitive, private, or irrelevant information from information that is targeted before they conduct an examination of a digital device. Often, agents must seize a suspect’s entire computer system, or gain access to a suspect’s entire email account, before they can determine if it contains evidence relevant to their investigation.