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Journal Article

Searches and Seizures in a Digital World

Orin S. Kerr
Harvard Law Review
Vol. 119, No. 2 (Dec., 2005), pp. 531-585
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4093493
Page Count: 55
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Searches and Seizures in a Digital World
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Abstract

How does the Fourth Amendment apply to the search and seizure of computer data? The Fourth Amendment was created to regulate entering homes and seizing physical evidence, but its prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures is now being called on to regulate a very different process: retrieval of digital evidence from electronic storage devices. Although obvious analogies exist between searching physical spaces and searching computers, important differences between them will force courts to rethink the key concepts of the Fourth Amendment. What does it mean to "search" computer data? When is computer data "seized"? When is a computer search or seizure "reasonable"? This Article offers a normative framework for applying the Fourth Amendment to searches of computer hard drives and other storage devices. It begins by exploring the basic differences between physical searches of tangible property and electronic searches of digital evidence. It then considers how the Fourth Amendment should apply when a government investigator retrieves evidence from a person's computer, and concludes that exposing data to an output device such as a monitor should be a Fourth Amendment "search" ordinarily requiring a warrant. Although copying data should not be deemed a "seizure" of that data, imaging a computer should be regulated by the Fourth Amendment and searches of copies should be treated the same as searches of the original. In the final section, the Article considers ways to limit the scope of computer searches. The plain view exception may need to be narrowed or even eliminated in digital evidence cases to ensure that digital warrants that are narrow in theory do not devolve into general warrants in practice. Tailoring the doctrine to the realities of computer investigations will protect the function of existing Fourth Amendment rules in the new environment of digital evidence.

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