Court of Appeals Reverses E-Mail Suppression

A district court had ruled that e-mails gathered after St. Paul police faxed a search warrant to a major ISP violated the suspect's Fourth Amendment rights.

by / November 19, 2002
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that police do not need to be present to collect evidence from an Internet service provider, reversing an earlier decision made by a federal judge in district court.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court in St. Louis said the district court erred in suppressing e-mails collected by Yahoo on a warrant obtained last year by St. Paul, Minn. police while investigating Dale Robert Bach, a Minneapolis man who was charged with inducing a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct.

Yahoo technicians in California provided the evidence after St. Paul police faxed the search warrant they obtained, which permitted the retrieval of e-mails between Bach and possible victims. Bach was indicted in August 2001.

The district court in Minnesota ruled the gathering of the e-mail evidence violated Bach's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches because it was executed outside the presence of a police officer.

In reversing the district court ruling, the appellate judges noted the "reasonableness standard" governing the Fourth Amendment "should not be read to mandate rigid rules that ignore countervailing law enforcement interests."

The presence of police is one of several factors that can help determine when a search is reasonable. Other factors include the scope of the warrant, behavior of officers and type of evidence being sought, the appellate judges wrote.

In Bach's case, the panel wrote that the presence of a law officer wouldn't have helped the search, as the technical expertise of Yahoo's technicians is greater than that of police officers. St. Paul police also complied with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in executing the warrant, the judges said.

"All of these factors weigh in favor of the government and we therefore find that the search was constitutional under the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness standard," the appellate judges wrote.

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