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U.S. v. Cioffi: Court Suppresses Email Evidence in Bear Sterns Case

Fourth Amendment Privacy

U.S. v. Cioffi, et al., Case No. 08-CR-415 (FB) (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 26, 2009)

Slip Opinion (hosted by WSJ)

The Eastern District of New York granted defendant Matthew Tannin’s motion to suppress evidence obtained from his personal Gmail account. Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin were charged with conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud in connection with their roles as Bear Sterns hedge fund managers. Prosecutors obtained a warrant to search Tannin’s personal Gmail account, but the warrant failed to specify what evidence could be seized or to what crimes the evidence must relate.  After some initial difficulty, Google delivered a copy of the email account to the Government. As the Wall Street Journal reported, one email contained a comment that funds Tannin managed could “blow up.” Tannin moved to suppress this evidence on the ground that it violated the Fourth Amendment.

District Judge Block held that the warrant was facially overbroad and thus violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that because the warrant itself was not particular as to either the items to be seized or to a particular crime, and because the affidavit was not attached or incorporated into the warrant, the warrant was unconstitutional. The court also held that the warrant did not merit a “good faith” or “inevitable discovery” exception, largely because the executing officers should have known the warrant was overbroad.

The Wall Street Journal provides a brief overview of the case. The Eric Goldman Blog also provides a summary of the case. Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy criticizes the ruling, saying that the good faith exception should have been granted since the case law was not firmly established at the time of execution.

In holding that the warrant was overbroad, the court reasoned that the warrant should have included information about the particular items to be seized and what crimes were at issue. Interestingly, the court did not take a firm position on the particularity requirement for computer searches. Instead, the court focused on particularity requirements in general.  Even though the warrant was based on an affidavit containing useful and particular information about the evidence to be siezed and the crime being charged, the warrant was facially overbroad because it did not formally incorporate and attach the affidavit.

The court went on to deny admission under either the “good faith” or  “inevitable discovery” exceptions. In denying the first exception, the court held that the good faith exception does not apply to cases with facially invalid warrants that executing officers could not reasonably presume to be valid. The court reasoned that this was such a case  because of the lack of particularity in the warrant. In denying the inevitable discovery exception, the court relied on United States v. Eng., and held that the analysis must focus on “what would have happened had the unlawful search never occurred.” 997 F.2d 987, 990 (2d Cir. 1993). The court reasoned that the government relied on the invalidation of the warrant to show that discovery was inevitable. Thus, the government essentially focused on what would have happened given, rather than without, the unlawful search. The court, therefore, granted the motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the government’s warrant.

This case is significant for two main reasons. First, it deals a major blow to the prosecution’s case against the two former hedge fund managers. The emails seemed to contain powerful evidence of knowledge of the funds’ instability, evidence that is now inadmissible. Second, it helps affirm the Second Circuit’s position that an affidavit must be attached and incorporated into the warrant in order for it to “cure” the warrant’s lack of particularity. To do so, it interprets a less than explicit section of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551 (2004). It thus adds weight to this distinct interpretation of Groh. Perhaps future Supreme Court jurisprudence will clarify and solidify the issue.