The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled in
State v. Castagnola that a warrant that had permitted seizure of the defendant’s computer,
and its subsequent search, was invalid based on a lack of probable cause
and a lack of particularity. Because so many search warrants rely on the type
of boilerplate language used in this warrant’s underlying affidavit,
this case will have important implications for future prosecutions.
Castagnola was charged with retaliation and criminal damaging, among other
things, for allegedly egging the cars of Twinsburg’s law director.
The investigating officer viewed a series of text messages sent by Castagnola
that included the admission that he had “found” the address
of the law director. The officer had his informant record a conversation
with Castagnola in which Castagnola also said he found the address through
records of the clerk of courts, because the law director had once received
a parking ticket.
A search warrant must be issued by a judge, who bases the decision to issue
the warrant on an affidavit by the investigator seeking the warrant. The
Supreme Court carefully recounted the ways in which this affidavit is
allowed to present its evidence. An affidavit must rely as much as possible
on specific, reliable facts. Both the affiant and the judge considering
the warrant application are allowed to make simple inferences based on
these facts, when those inferences flow directly from the facts provided.
Crucially, however, the presentation to the judge must permit the judge
to consider the facts on which those inferences are specifically based,
in order to ensure that the judge is a neutral analyst of the evidence.
In this case, the trial record established that the investigating officer
had presented an inference—that Castagnola found the address information
online – in the warrant application without disclosing it to the
issuing judge. In particular, the officer provided a paraphrase of the
recorded conversation, in which he had Castagnola saying he found the
address “online” when in fact the recording of the conversation
proved that Castagnola never said “online.”
This fact was important because the search warrant gave the police the
power to seize Castagnola’s computers and other related equipment
from his home, on the assumption that he had used a home computer to look
up this information, and that the computer would contain information related
to his search. The warrant as issued allowed seizure of the computer and
failed to specify the type of information which could be searched on it
– i.e., the name of the law director, or Internet accessing of Clerk
of Courts’ websites.
The Supreme Court held that this affidavit first of all assumed that Castagnola
had searched for the address online, and
from that assumption, that he had done so from a computer in his home, and
from that that the entirety of the computer should be searched. These “layered
inferences” in the Court’s phrase were not only excessive
but utterly unsupported, particularly in light of the fact that the officer
testified to basing his assumption on the exchange of text messages, yet
could only agree that “theoretically” Castagnola could have
performed the search on his smartphone; the officer had never used his
own smartphone to access the Internet.
Because the officer mistakenly inferred the online, at home, on a computer
search, the Court ruled that the warrant was not based on probable cause
and so was invalid. More importantly, it went on to note that the boilerplate
language of the warrant, authorizing seizure and search of all computers
in the residence “did not guide and control” the actions of
the computer analyst who examined the contents of the computer because
it allowed her to seize every single item in the machine.
This language allowed her to examine documents, photos, videos, and other
files, rather than only those types of items that might have provided
evidence of the search for the law director’s address. The Court
explicitly noted that computers are able to store vastly larger quantities
of data and information than a briefcase, file drawer, or other paper-era
repositories. Thus the requirement for particularity assumes greater importance
for a court to consider.
Despite the everyday usage of electronic devices, the Court called for
better and more thorough scrutiny of warrant affidavits, meaning that
generic language sweeping up any electronic device any time will not suffice.
However, as the Court pithily makes clear, the chain of problems with
this warrant was long, and not every defendant will be able to show such
overstepping: “Where a privacy intrusion is based on blatant conjecture
that evidence exists on a computer in a residence because of a text-message
admission of vandalism, the societal benefits of suppressing the evidence
outweigh the societal risks of harm.”