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.”