Computer Expertise Cited As Probable Cause For Equipment Seizure - InformationWeek

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4/15/2009
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Computer Expertise Cited As Probable Cause For Equipment Seizure

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says student Riccardo Calixte's Fourth Amendment rights were threatened by the university police, who seized his cell phone, iPod, and computer.

On March 30, the Boston College Police Department cited a computer science student's expertise with computers as the basis for a warrant to seize and search his digital property.

The reasons listed as probable cause by Kevin M. Christopher, a detective with the Boston College Police Department, to justify the seizure of student Riccardo F. Calixte's digital devices include a number of character aspersions offered by an informant.

Because Calixte allegedly is skilled with computers, has been seen with unknown computers, had "jail broken" iPhones, used different operating systems "to hide his illegal activities," and "illegally downloaded movies as well as music," among other supposed indicators of wrongdoing, college police seized the student's cell phone, iPod, computers, disks, and, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a "Post-it" note that Calixte was using to take notes about officers' actions during the search.

The crime being investigated is the sending of an e-mail to a school mailing list that identified another student as being gay. That student, the victim in the case, is the informant providing information against Calixte.

The EFF and law firm Fish & Richardson on Friday filed a motion to quash the warrant and return Calixte's property. The motion states that the affidavit making the case for probable cause isn't valid, in part, because it "shows that the informant carries a grudge against Calixte, cannot discern the difference between legal and illegal use of computers, and operates based on rumors and reputation."

Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney with the EFF, argues that damaging e-mail may be the basis for a defamation claim in civil court, but not a criminal one. "You don't get to have the police come in with guns and take your equipment away," he said.

Pointing to the affidavit's claims about Calixte's computer expertise, he said, "This seems like a lot of FUD. If you strip it all away, all they're alleging is, 'We think this guy sent an e-mail to an e-mail list.' "

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