United States v. Ganias

Concerning Whether Courts Have Jurisdiction to Review Cases Brought Based on Violations of Federal Statutory Rights

Introduction

The key issue in United States v. Ganias is whether the government may retain and search copies of electronic files, given that the files were not covered by the warrant under which they were seized. Due to the volume and complexity of digital data, courts have often recognized the need to over-seize electronic data and later review for relevant information off-site. However, the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search and seizures places into question the subsequent retention and searches of information not covered by the original warrant.

The Second Circuit ruled that the government violated Stavros Ganias’s Fourth Amendment rights when it seized his personal computer records and retained them for more than two-and-a-half years. The government may not “possess indefinitely” Ganias’s records that were beyond the scope of the original warrant while it looked for other evidence to give it reason to search the files again.

The Second Circuit decided to rehear this case en banc, with oral argument to be held on September 30, 2015.

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Questions Presented

1. Whether the Fourth Amendment was violated when, pursuant to a warrant, the government seized and cloned three computer hard drives containing both responsive and non-responsive files, retained the cloned hard drives for some two-and-a-half years, and then searched the non-responsive files pursuant to a subsequently issued warrant.

2. Considering all relevant factors, whether the government agents in this case acted reasonably and in good faith such that the files obtained from the cloned hard drives should not be suppressed.

Background

Stavros Ganias owned an accounting practice in Connecticut. In 2003, the Army obtained a warrant to search Ganias’s offices for evidence of fraud. During its search, the Army made “identical copies, or forensic mirror images, of the hard drives of all three of Ganias’s computers.”  Thirteen months later, the government finished reviewing the relevant materials but continued to keep files not covered by the Army warrant. Almost two-and-a-half years later, in 2006, the government obtained another warrant to search the stored files as part of a new IRS tax evasion investigation.

Using this evidence, the government prosecuted Ganias in the District Court for the District of Connecticut. A jury convicted Ganias of tax evasion. Ganias appealed in the Second Circuit, which vacated his conviction. The Second Circuit held that, under the Fourth Amendment, the government may not indefinitely possess records beyond the scope of the Army warrant while looking for other evidence to give it reason to search the files again. On June 29, 2015, the Second Circuit decided to rehear the appeal en banc. Oral argument will be heard on September 30, 2015.

EPIC's Interest

EPIC has long advocated for application of the “interception” standard to email, and filed a 2004 amicus brief on this issue in U.S. v. Councilman.

EPIC also supports the framework established by the Ninth Circuit in Comprehensive Drug Testing to address the scope of electronic data searches—including the obligations of minimizing and deleting non-pertinent data after the search is conducted. EPIC recently addressed the CDT framework in its brief in Quon v. City of Ontario, CA.

More recently, EPIC filed a brief in Riley v. California, advocating for greater Fourth Amendment protections for digital data. And the Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion agreed, finding that the traditional rule governing the seizure of physical items incident to a lawful arrest does not authorize a search of the digital contents of a seized cell phone.

Legal Documents

United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, No. 12-240-cr.

United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, No. 08-cr-224

  • Ruling on Motions for New Trial & for Reconsideration, United States v. Ganias, No. 08-224, 2011 WL 4738684 (D. Conn. Oct. 5, 2011).
  • United States v. Ganias, No. 08-224, 2011 WL 3563104 (D. Conn. Aug. 12, 2011).
  • Ruling on Motion to Suppress Evidence, United States v. Ganias, No. 08-224, 2011 WL 2532396 (D. Conn. June 24, 2011).

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