Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Ninth Circuit Approves Seizure of Suspect’s Roommate’s Computer
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Police may seize and search a suspect’s roommate’s computer even though the roommate has not been identified as a suspect and is not named as a target in the warrant, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court reversed an order of Senior Judge Terry J. Hatter of the Central District of California, who granted the motion of Venice roommates Christopher Adjani and Jana Reinhold to suppress incriminating e-mails obtained from Reinhold’s computer, and remanded the case back to the district court.
Adjani and Reinhold are charged with seeking to extort $3 million from Adjani’s former employer, Marina del Rey-based Paycom Billing Services Inc. The company processes credit card and check transactions for Internet merchants, and receives and stores vast amounts of credit card data.
Prosecutors presented evidence that on Jan.8, 2004, a woman, later identified as Reinhold, delivered envelopes containing letters from Adjani to Paycom partners Christopher Mallick, Clay Andrews and Joel Hall, saying Adjani had purchased a copy of Paycom’s database containing its clients’ sensitive financial information, and threatening to sell the database unless the company paid up.
The letters directed the partners to sign an enclosed agreement and fax it back to Adjani by Jan. 12, and included Adjani’s e-mail address and a fax number.
Adjani left Los Angeles on Jan. 9, and sent an e-mail to Hall from Switzerland to confirm that Hall and the others received the letters and directing Hall to communicate with him using AOL/Mac iChat instant messaging. The FBI monitored several communications between Hall and Adjani over the Internet and telephone.
Adjani arranged to pick up $2.5 million on January 26 in exchange for the database, and returned to Los Angeles on January 22, the record showed. Reinhold was observed leaving Adjani’s residence, picking him up at the airport in a car registered to him, and returning to his residence. Agents also observed Reinhold using an Apple computer, the same brand Adjani used to e-mail and instant message with Paycom.
On Jan. 26, agents said, they observed Reinhold driving Adjani to his meeting with Paycom.
A magistrate judge issued a warrant for Adjani’s arrest and a search warrant covering Adjani’s residence which specifically authorized seizure of computers and various computer storage devices.
At the residence, agents seized a computer belonging to Reinhold which a later search showed to contain e-mails between Reinhold and Adjani implicating Reinhold in the extortion plot.
Adjani and Reinhold were arrested and charged with conspiring to commit extortion and transmitting a threatening communication with intent to extort.
In ordering the incriminating e-mails suppressed, Hatter said the agents lacked sufficient probable cause to search Reinhold’s computer, and should have obtained an additional search warrant once they discovered information incriminating her.
But Judge Raymond C. Fisher, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said that the warrant was supported by probable cause because the affidavit established a fair probability that evidence of a crime would be found in computers at Adjani’s residence.
“The agents, acting pursuant to a valid warrant to look for evidence of a computer-based crime, searched computers found in Adjani’s residence and to which he had apparent access,” the judge said. “That one of the computers actually belonged to Reinhold did not exempt it from being searched, especially given her association with Adjani and participation (however potentially innocuous) in some of his activities as documented in the agent’s supporting affidavit.”
“Reinhold’s argument that there was no probable cause to search her computer, a private and personal piece of property, because the warrant failed to list her as a ‘target, suspect, or co-conspirator’ misunderstands Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Although individuals undoubtedly have a high expectation of privacy in the files stored on their personal computers, we have never held that agents may establish probable cause to search only those items owned or possessed by the criminal suspect.”
ThejJudge rejected Reinhold’s argument that, if the warrant encompassed a search of her computer, then it was impermissibly overbroad, saying:
“[T]he government described the items to be searched and seized as particularly as could be reasonably expected given the nature of the crime and the evidence it then possessed.”
Although Fisher conceded that “the warrant arguably might have provided for a ‘less invasive search of Adjani’s [email] ‘inbox’ and ‘outbox,’” he concluded that “[a]voiding that kind of specificity and limitation was not unreasonable.”
The judge reasoned:
“Computer files are easy to disguise or rename, and were we to limit the warrant to such a specific search protocol, much evidence could escape discovery simply because of Adjani’s (or Reinhold’s) labeling of the files documenting Adjani’s criminal activity. The government should not be required to trust the suspect’s self-labeling when executing a warrant.”
Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder and Daniel M. Friedman, senior circuit judge for the Federal Circuit, sitting by designation, concurred with Fisher.
Assistant U. S. Attorney Elyssa Getreu represented the government Marilyn E. Bednarski of Kaye, McLane & Bednarski in Pasadena represented Reinhold.
The case is United States v. Adjani, 05-50092
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company