Is baseball drugs ruling a Fourth-Amendment foul?

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Major League Baseball has found itself embroiled in a federal investigation into whether some of its biggest stars used performance-enhancing drugs to smash home runs in record numbers. But civil-liberties advocates, as well as unions, worry that a recent legal ruling in the case will reach far beyond the diamond and give the government broad search-and-seizure powers in the digital age.

At the heart of the case is how much freedom the government has to pursue crimes discovered in electronic files while searching for evidence against other people. It turns on just how much protection the Fourth Amendment, written in the 18th century to stop unreasonable searches, affords information in a 21st-century computer database about people other than those targeted by investigators.

"The Supreme Court has never applied the Fourth Amendment to computers," says Orin Kerr, an associate law professor at George Washington University. "The federal courts of appeals are beginning to decide a bunch of cases: in 2006, there were 20 or 30 in the broad area of how the Fourth Amendment applies to computers. But each case is very fact-specific and narrow, so the law remains pretty murky."

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco late last month upheld the government's power to seize computer files from two laboratories that performed mandatory drug tests on major leaguers, including files of professional hockey players and other nonsports patients tested by the labs.

The seizures were part of a federal investigation that began in 2002 into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, which supplied sports stars with performance-enhancing drugs meant to escape detection. The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that baseball superstar Barry Bonds, who has denied knowingly using such substances, is under investigation for perjury connected to his testimony in the Balco case.

Prompted by the investigation and congressional hearings, baseball team owners called for testing all players for steroid use. Baseball's players' union eventually agreed after initial resistance, on the condition that the results would remain secret and used only to determine the extent of the problem.

Players submitted to tests in 2003 at two different laboratories, one in California and the other in Nevada. Later that year, federal investigators, who had zeroed in on 10 baseball players, began asking for the results. Armed with a search warrant for information on the 10, federal agents seized a large number of computer files containing the test results. Not only did they get test results for the 10 they were investigating, they found the names of more than 100 other baseball players who had positive tests for steroid use. A prosecutor told the Ninth Circuit the government would reserve the right to continue investigating those additional players.

"We were authorized specifically by the warrant to search every single file in all of their computers," Assistant U.S. Attorney Erika Frick said. "We took only one directory. We were authorized to search every one of those files."

The Major League Baseball Players Association and one of the labs have fought the government's actions, and three lower courts -- two in California and one in Nevada -- ruled in their favor, saying the government overstepped its authority in seizing more files than those pertaining to the 10 players it originally was investigating. A key question was whether the government could act on information it took from the labs against the players not named in the search warrant. One district court judge went so far as to ask, "What happened to the Fourth Amendment? Was it repealed somehow?"

The Fourth Amendment requires authorities prove to a judge that there is evidence that gives them probable cause to search a specific place, as well as list the persons or things to be seized.

"The reason for the warrant requirement is to make clear, before the police seize records, the purpose of the search and the scope of the search," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor who teaches information privacy law at Georgetown University. "It should not be viewed as unbounded authority to gather all data that is available."

Courts have often struggled to define which searches and seizures are "unreasonable." For instance, authorities are allowed to seize evidence that lies in plain sight, even in if they lack a warrant. In a less complicated criminal case, the doctrine allows, for example, police with a search warrant for drugs to seize an illegal gun they might see on top of a table.

"Normally we all know agents can look in a closet," says Fordham University criminal law professor Dan Richman. "This is a really big and interesting closet."

The government argues it needed to cast a wide net, gathering large bunches of files to make sure to find all pertinent evidence, not merely believing the labels on files in a computer directory. If during that check prosecutors came across evidence of a crime, they could keep it and use it.

Attorneys for the players are in the process of petitioning for a hearing by a 15-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, which can reverse the three-judge panel.

The MLB Players Association says the Ninth Circuit ruling will hand the government unprecedented entry to private information of large numbers of people accused of no crimes. The government seized files on National Hockey League players and employees of several other sports organizations and businesses unrelated to the investigation. The hockey players' union says it did not know of the governments' actions until Ninth Circuit judge Sidney Thomas issued his dissent. The NHL Players Association supports the baseball union's stance and is examining legal options.

Addressing concerns that the ruling could open the way for the government to prospectively rummage through the files of people against whom there is no hint of evidence, Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, writing for the majority, suggested a magistrate examine and separate pertinent computer evidence from unrelated material. New York-based white-collar defense attorney Andrew Hruska says he likes that idea in principle but questions its applicability in the real world. Pass on 20 gigabytes of data to sift through, he says, and "you will get a very frosty stare from a magistrate."


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