Search Warrants for Facebook, iPods and Personal Computers

In a murder and arson case, the Defendant objected to search warrants that had been issued for his personal computer, BlackBerry, Facebook profile and iPod.  The Defendant claimed the affidavits supporting the warrants did not have any evidentiary nexus between the items to be searched and the alleged criminal activity.  State v. Gurney, 2010 Me. Super. LEXIS 96, at *6-7 (Me. Super. Ct. 2010).  The Defendant also argued the detective’s affidavit did not establish the Facebook profile belonged to the Defendant.  Id.

The Defendant surrendered to the police after the strangulation, decapitation and burning of his girlfriend’s body in his apartment.  Gurney, at *4. 

The police learned of the Defendant’s location after they stopped one of the Defendant’s friends, who ran a stop sign while driving his car.  The friend was on his cell phone talking to the Defendant at the time of the traffic stop.  The stopping officer spoke to the Defendant on the friend’s cell phone and informed the detectives of the Defendant’s location.  Gurney, at *4-5. 

When the Defendant was arrested, he had with him his BlackBerry, his personal computer in sleep mode and additional storage devices.  Gurney, at *7. 

The Court held that the Detective’s affidavit showed that there was a substantial basis that evidence related to any alleged criminal activity would be on the Defendant’s computer and BlackBerry.  First, the Defendant admitted to killing his girlfriend.  Secondly, the Defendant had used his computer to communicate through Facebook.  Third, the Defendant had been on the phone with his friend, justifying the belief evidence could be on the BlackBerry.  Gurney, at *7. 

The Court explained:

The justice could reasonably infer that Mr. Gurney had used his computer to communicate via his Facebook account or in other ways, that he had been using the computer shortly before being apprehended, and that he had used his Blackberry phone to call Mr. Bryant. It was likewise reasonable to believe that there was at least a fair probability that evidence relating to Mr. Gurney’s activities, whereabouts, communications, motives, plans, and state of mind could be stored within those devices. The motion to suppress evidence obtained from the Apple computer, Blackberry cellular telephone, and their attendant storage devices is denied.

Gurney, at *7-8. 

However, the Court suppressed any evidence found on the iPod.  Gurney, at *8.  The Court noted that the detective’s affidavit did not mention the iPod and there was no reason to believe any evidence related to the crime to be on the device.  Gurney, at *8. 

The Court explained the search of the Facebook account in greater detail.  The detectives interviewed the Defendant’s friend at his own home before the Defendant’s arrest.  The friend logged into Facebook with the detectives and was able to see the Defendant had recently logged into Facebook.  Gurney, at *8-9.    When the Defendant was later arrested, he had his computer with him in sleep mode.  Gurney, at *9. 

The Court held that the warrant issuing judge reasonably inferred that the police learned the Defendant’s identity from his friend. Moreover,  there was a strong likelihood the Defendant updated his Facebook account around the time of the victim’s death.  Gurney, at *9.  As such, a judge could find “…a strong probability the Facebook records would hold evidence of [the Defendant’s] contacts, locations, activities, motives, plans, and state of mind shortly before and after” the victim’s death.  Gurney, at *9. 

Bow Tie Thoughts

I found the facts of this case very disturbing. 

The Court’s reasoning in issuing the search warrants for the BlackBerry, laptop and Facebook are all very valid.  People live with technology touching almost every part of their lives.  Specifically issuing search warrants for each does make sense.  It also makes sense to suppress evidence that is not included in the affidavit for a warrant, such as the iPod in this case.

Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg from 2013 to 2016 and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.