N.D.W.Va.: SW for computer hard drive for evidence of murder or plans was necessarily broad and not unreasonable

Defendant was being held on a murder charge, and he made a jail call to his parents to have his computer hard drive wiped clean. Hearing that, police obtained a search warrant for the computer believing that it might have evidence tying defendant to the murder. Instead, they found child pornography. The computer warrant was necessarily broad, but broad doesn’t mean that it’s per se unconstitutional. The USMJ recommended suppressing in part but the USDJ disagrees. Also important is the fact that the USMJ didn’t say how the warrant could have been narrowed more. The motion to suppress is denied. United States v. Cobb, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174207 (N.D. W.Va. Oct. 10, 2018):

Magistrate Judge Aloi concluded that this warrant lacked the requisite particularity because it allowed Sergeant Alkire to search the contents of Cobb’s laptop computer in their entirety (Dkt. No. 36 at 16-18). But the need to review the contents of Cobb’s laptop in order to determine which files were authorized for seizure does not make the warrant unconstitutionally overbroad.

Indeed, “[w]hen a search requires review of a large collection of items, such as papers, ‘it is certain that some innocuous documents will be examined, at least cursorily, in order to determine whether they are, in fact, among those papers authorized to be seized.'” United States v. Williams, 592 F.3d 511, 519-20 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting Andresen, 427 U.S. at 482 n.11). Computers are no different: “[T]he sheer amount of information contained on a computer does not distinguish the authorized search of the computer from an analogous search of a file cabinet containing a large number of documents.” Id. at 523.

Nor is Williams strictly limited to crimes that require the use of a computer. See, e.g., United States v. Patterson, No. 2:17cr114, 2017 WL 5889744, at *4 (E.D. Va. Nov. 29, 2017) (holding search of computer hard drives did not exceed scope of warrant to search for evidence of various firearm offenses). What matters is whether, as here, there is probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be found on the computer. See, e.g., United States v. Bradley, No. 5:16-cr-8, 2017 WL 1133510, at *5 n.8 (W.D. Va. Mar. 24, 2017) (recognizing evidence of money laundering found in plain view on computer would be admissible under Williams when officers had probable cause to search email for evidence of drug crimes).

Although the second warrant could have been more specific, “[m]ore specificity is not required by the Constitution.” Dickerson, 166 F.3d at 694 (alteration in original) (quoting Ladd, 704 F.2d at 136). In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Aloi reasoned that the second warrant was not sufficiently particular because the investigating officers could have been more specific under the circumstances (Dkt. No. 36 at 20). For example, he suggests that the executing officers should have included information to indicate that they would search for evidence of motive and premeditation, including the conflicting motives that Cobb’s parents previously had reported. Id.

Tellingly, the R&R does not explain how any of this information would have further limited the scope of the second warrant. Id. at 21. Specifying that the officers would search for and seize evidence of Cobb’s motive and premeditation would not have further limited a warrant already limited to searching for and seizing evidence of first-degree murder—which necessarily includes evidence of motive and premeditation.

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