Crowell & Moring

Where the government lawfully seized data from more than 60 hard drives in a securities fraud investigation, a court found that failing to review that data for more than 15 months was unreasonable.

In US v. Metter, the government seized large amounts of the defendant’s data pursuant to a valid search warrant but then failed to do anything with the images for over 15 months.  While the search warrant itself was proper, the process afterwards was not:  the Fourth Amendment requires the government to complete its review within a “reasonable” period of time.

While the court noted that delays of several months have been found to be reasonable, there was no guidance as to when a delay become presumptively unreasonable.  The court found that:

The parties have not provided the Court with any authority, nor has the Court found any, indicating that the government may seize and image electronic data and then retain that data with no plans whatsoever to begin review of that data to determine whether any irrelevant, personal information was improperly seized. The government’s blatant disregard for its responsibility in this case is unacceptable and unreasonable.

The court suppressed the electronic evidence seized from the defendant, noting that:

The Court has not reached this conclusion lightly. However, the Court cannot, in the interest of justice and fairness, permit the government to ignore its obligations. Otherwise, the Fourth Amendment would lose all force and meaning in the digital era and citizens will have no recourse as to the unlawful seizure of information that falls outside the scope of a search warrant and its subsequent dissemination.

The impact of this decision could be significant – the government is on notice that it must do at least something with lawfully seized evidence in a reasonable amount of time.  While we don’t know where the “reasonable” amount of time line is, the Eastern District of New York has found that such a line exists, and that it is somewhere in between a few months and 15 months.