Search and seizure laws have come a long way since their inclusion in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Most notably, dramatic advances in technology have created a legal conundrum with regard to the government’s ability to obtain digital information – which is often stored remotely on servers decidedly outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts.
So was the case in an ongoing legal dispute between the federal government and Microsoft, the latter of which admittedly stores email users’ data on large servers within both the U.S. and abroad. In the case at issue, the federal government was seeking to unearth email data allegedly created in furtherance of a massive drug trafficking ring, and successfully obtained a search warrant essentially requiring Microsoft to hand over the data. Problem was, Microsoft complied with the request to the extent any data was available on U.S.-based servers – and left out email data possibly contained within its overseas servers; most notably, servers in Dublin, Ireland.
Microsoft then set out to quash the government’s attempt to recover the overseas data, which was denied by the District Court. From there, it launched an appeal under the Stored Communications Act, which was enacted in 1986 to extend Fourth Amendment protections to certain types of data stored digitally. Under the SCA, a company like Microsoft may not disclose its data to third parties, except under certain exceptions. One such exception, upon which the government rested its argument, states that “if [a] governmental entity obtains a warrant issued using the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure . . . by a court of competent jurisdiction,” Microsoft would then be compelled to comply with the warrant.
In its conclusion, the Court decided that the government’s warrant does not apply to data stored overseas, and that the terms of the SCA impart the same territorial restrictions as a traditional search warrant. In other words, the U.S. courts do not have the jurisdiction to demand access to servers located in another nation, just as a traditional warrant would generally not be enforceable in another country for the search and seizure of evidence allegedly located therein. In sum, if the government wishes to uncover the content of the Dublin-based servers, it would need to comport with Ireland law.
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If you are facing a criminal charge and would like to discuss your rights under U.S. search and seizure laws, please contact Ianniello & Anderson today: 518-350-7755.