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The Contents Of Your Computer Can Be Searched Remotely Without A Warrant


Law Firm Criminal Appeals Computer Search Without Warrant

U.S. v. Heckenkamp

482 F.3d 1142

9th Circuit Court Of Appeals

Decided on April 5,2007 

The Contents Of Your Computer Can Be Searched Remotely Without A Warrant

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Summary: Computer administrator Scott Kennedy worked for Qualcomm Corporation in San Diego California. He discovered someone had obtained unauthorized access to the company’s computer network and contacted the FBI. Kennedy traced the hacker to a computer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Jeffrey Savoy, the University’s computer network investigator, examined the computer and found evidence that someone was using a computer and was in fact hacking into the Qualcomm system, as well as hacking the university’s networking system.

   Savoy tracked the hack back to Heckencamp and remotely searched his computer to determine the unauthorized intrusion into the network. Agent Rankhorn of the FBI, tracked Defendant Heckenkamp’s dorm room, asked for his password to log into his computer, and Savoy confirmed that the Defendant’s computer was used to gain the unauthorized access.

    In the trial court, Defendant argued that the results of the search should be suppressed. The trial court denied that motion. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to two counts of violating 18 U.S.C § 1030, which allowed him to appeal to suppress the evidence gathered from the search, stating his Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable expectation of privacy was violated. The 9th circuit Court of Appeals affirmed and held that Defendant did have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy but the ‘special needs’ exception applied to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement applied

Issue: Whether or not the warrantless search of Defendant’s computer was justified under the ‘special needs’ exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Held: Yes, although Defendant had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his computer, the ‘special needs’ exception eliminated the need for a warrant when he hacked  into the university’s network. Under the special needs exception to the warrant requirement, a warrant is not required when special needs beyond the normal need for law enforcement make the warrant a probable cause requirement impracticable. The trial court must balance the need to search against the intrusiveness of the search.

Issue: whether the defendant’s objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his computer was eliminated when he attached it to the university network.

Holding: No, the act of attaching his computer to the network did not eliminate his reasonable privacy expectations

Facts: Scott Kennedy, a computer system administrator for Qualcomm Corporation in San Diego, California, discovered that somebody had hacked into the company’s computer network and contacted Special Agent Rankhorn of the FBI. Kennedy tracked down the hacker to a computer at the University of Wisconsin and contacted Jeffrey Savoy, the university’s computer network investigator. Savoy found the IP address of the hacker ending in 117 and traced it back to a student’s dorm room on campus. The university’s Police officers found Defendant Heckenkamp and asked him for his password to access his computer. Savoy confirmed that Defendant’s computer was used in gaining the unauthorized access and he was arrested.

At trial, Defendant sought to suppress the evidence acquired during the search, stating his Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable expectation of privacy was violated when Police illegally searched his room and seized his computer; that motion was denied. Defendant appealed.

Legal Analysis: The 9th Circuit Court Of Appeals held that in order to establish the illegality of a search under the Fourth Amendment, a Defendant must show that he has a reasonable expectation of privacy, one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. No single factor determines whether an individual legitimately may claim under the Fourth Amendment that a place should be free of warrantless government intrusion. Defendant had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his personal computer; the mere act of accessing the network does not in itself eliminate privacy expectations.

However, privacy expectations may be reduced when the user attaches to a network where administrators are monitoring communications and that monitoring is communicated to the users. Savoy’s actions were taken to protect the university’s server, rather than, for law enforcement purposes. When examined in its entirety, University policies do not eliminate Defendant’s expectation of privacy in his computer; they establish limited instances where Defendant threatened the integrity of the campus’s computer, which allowed immediate action of the administrator under the ‘special needs’ exception to the warrant requirement. Requiring a warrant to investigate would have disrupted the operation of the university and the network that it relies upon in order to function.

Under the ‘special needs’ exception, a warrant is not required when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable. If the court determines that such conditions exist, it will assess the constitutionality of the search by balancing the need to search against the intrusiveness of the search. Henderson v City of Simi Valley, 305 f.3D 1052, 1059, (9th Cir.2002.)


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