December 14, 2012

Vermont court affirms limit on police e-searches

The state's highest court says judges can attach conditions to police scrutiny of computers.

The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday that a lower court judge can limit a police search of a computer and other electronic devices in an identity theft case, a decision that American Civil Liberties Union is calling a big boost for electronic privacy.

The state had complained that a lower court judge had placed too many restrictions on a search warrant Burlington police had obtained for a man's computer and other devices.

Authorities targeted the Burlington man in 2010, believing he had used a computer to apply for credit cards in the name of an elderly New York state man. Burlington Police asked a court to allow them to seize "any computers or electronic media," including compact disks, cellphones and removable storage devices.

The judge granted the warrant but attached conditions based on those issued in another case by a federal appeals court in California. Police could seize the items, but they had to be examined by an independent investigator who could turn over to the detectives only material related to the identity theft allegations and could not prosecute a suspect based on evidence of other crimes found on the devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco argued that the Fourth Amendment allows judges to tailor search warrants to avoid overly invasive searches.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court agreed in a spit decision.


"Because modern computers contain a plethora of private information, exposing them to wholesale searches presents a special threat of exposing irrelevant but damaging secrets," Justice John Dooley wrote.

"The interest in who will view personal information is heightened when the information in question is not a single embarrassing fact but rather a vast array of private materials. Personal computers often store every aspect of a citizen's personal life," he wrote.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont called the ruling very important for modern privacy.

"We are pleased that the court recognized that electronic devices like iPhones have incredibly personal information on them, like your intimate partners, the books you read, and the music you listen to," Gilbert said.


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