Search Warrants of Computers:  How Long Are They Valid?

Search warrants have traditionally been the focal point of many an appellate court’s decisions in the area of criminal law.  This area of law is governed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and here in Massachusetts by Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declarations of Rights, and is extremely important because it governs when and under what circumstances the government can search and/or seize items in your possession.  This is true whether those items are located in your home or on your person.

As a Massachusetts internet crimes attorney, I can assure readers that the fact that personal computers and smartphones are a now ubiquitous element of our everyday life, has elevated legal issues surrounding search warrants to a very high degree.  This fact was illustrated in a recent case on this legal topic decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in Commonwealth vs. Guastucci, SJC-12829.

Here, the SJC upheld the Defendant’s conviction of two counts of possession of child pornography, criminalized by Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 272, 29C.  What made this case important, is that the search warrant that police used to enter the defendant’s home and search and seize the computer that was suspected of being used to download child pornography, was seven months old before it was executed.  (The Massachusetts State Police Unit that tracks child pornography websites & platforms tracked the computer to the defendant’s home address.) At his Superior Court prosecution, the defendant filed a Motion To Suppress, arguing that the reliability of the information in the application for the search warrant was no longer “timely” because seven months had passed from the time it was issued by a judge.

The defendant argued that the warrant information “stale”, and that as a result the search warrant that obtained the computer evidence was defective.  As a legal consequence, the defendant’s attorney argued that the contents and data from the computer that was seized should be ruled inadmissible.  The judge hearing the motion denied it, ruling that “while [a period of time of ] seven months was less than ideal … it was a tolerable amount of delay”, and that the information submitted in the warrant application was not “stale”.  The defendant then entered as conditional plea of guilty, while simultaneously seeking review by the SJC of the judge’s ruling.

In Part Two of this post, I’ll discuss what “probable cause”, why it’s so important, and how it governs this area of Massachusetts criminal law.

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