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Digitizing the Fourth Amendment: Limiting the Private Search Exception in Computer Investigations

41 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2011  

Benjamin Holley

McLean County State's Attorney's Office; University of Virginia - School of Law

Date Written: April 19, 2010

Abstract

The “Private Search” exception to the Fourth Amendment allows law enforcement officers to re-create, without a warrant, a search conducted by a private individual, provided two conditions are met. First, the individual may not act at the behest of the government (the agency prong) and second, officers may not search beyond what was already discovered by the private searcher (the scope prong). The exception is premised on the theory that the private searcher destroyed whatever expectation of privacy the suspect had in his information, thereby eliminating any Fourth Amendment protection. In applying this otherwise well-understood exception to searches of computers, however, courts have adopted widely varying approaches based on divergent assumptions and leading to dramatically different results. This Note argues that, because of the nature of computer storage, courts should narrow the application of the private search exception by broadly interpreting the “agency” prong and narrowly interpreting the “scope” prong. Such an approach maintains the purpose of the exception without unduly sacrificing informational privacy or law enforcement efficacy.

Keywords: Private Search, Search and Seizure, Computer Law, Fourth Amendment

Suggested Citation

Holley, Benjamin, Digitizing the Fourth Amendment: Limiting the Private Search Exception in Computer Investigations (April 19, 2010). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 96, p. 677, 2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1765989

Benjamin Holley (Contact Author)

McLean County State's Attorney's Office ( email )

Bloomington, IL
United States

University of Virginia - School of Law

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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