AK: SW for tenant space led to search of computer in landlord’s apt, and that was without PC

Computers are entitled to the same sensitive Fourth Amendment analysis that cell phones got in Riley. Here, Pohland was an Assistant AG of Alaska involved in labor relations matters for the state. McRoberts and her husband were tenants of hers, occupying a suite of rooms within her house. McRoberts came under suspicion for allegedly forging labor union interest cards to unionize the University of Alaska. Alaska State Troopers came with a search warrant for McRoberts and ended up searching Pohland’s computer, too. That led to her being charged having allegedly “colluded” with McRoberts in the alleged forgeries. The search of Pohland’s computer was unreasonable and without probable cause. It was apparent what part of the house belonged to whom, and there was no probable cause to search Pohland’s computer under the McRoberts warrant. Pohland v. State, 2019 Alas. App. LEXIS 25 (Feb. 1, 2019):

Turning to the question of what kind of probable cause was needed to support the seizure and search of Pohland’s laptop computer, we note that the search warrant in this case was issued to allow the troopers to search for evidence of crimes committed by McRoberts — the suspected crimes of forgery and falsification of business records. The troopers did not assert that Pohland was complicit in McRoberts’s forgeries and falsifications of business records. Rather, the troopers’ justification for searching Pohland’s apartment at all was that McRoberts might have concealed evidence of her own wrongdoing inside Pohland’s living space.

The warrant authorized the troopers to search for documents “related to the business and finances” of Skye McRoberts and her husband Donavahn. And because business and financial documents nowadays often take digital form, the warrant contained a provision that authorized the troopers to seize and search all the “computers and electronic storage media” within the house for such evidence.

(Technically, the warrant contained a clause that limited this search to only the computers and storage media that were “capable of concealing documents related to the business and finances associated with Donavahn McRoberts or Skye McRoberts”. But as a practical matter, this was an authorization to search every computer and digital storage device in the house — because all such devices are “capable” of concealing business and financial documents.)

Putting all of this together, the troopers’ rationale for searching Pohland’s laptop computer was not because Pohland was suspected of being an accomplice to McRoberts’s crimes, but rather because (1) McRoberts was suspected of business and financial wrongdoing, and (2) evidence pertaining to such crimes often takes the form of digital documents, spreadsheets, etc., and (3) McRoberts had physical access to Pohland’s living space, and thus (4) McRoberts might have hidden digital evidence of her own crimes on the hard drive of Pohland’s laptop.

This kind of speculation did not constitute probable cause to believe that the evidence the troopers were seeking — i.e., documents pertaining to the business and finances of McRoberts and her husband — would be found on Pohland’s laptop.

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