A justice from Massachusetts's highest court has ordered police to return a laptop and other gear seized from a Boston student's dorm room after rejecting prosecutors' arguments that hoax emails he was suspected of sending might be illegal under a computer crime statute.
The decision, issued Thursday by Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Margot Botsford, also ordered police to immediately cease any ongoing search of the seized property. Police confiscated 23 items, including three laptops, two iPods, two cellular phones, a digital camera, and a variety of data-storage devices, during a March 30 raid on the dorm room of Boston College (BC) student Riccardo Calixte.
"No one should be subjected to a search like this based on such flimsy theories and evidence," said Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which helped represent the computer science student. As a result of the seizure, Calixte was forced to complete much of the final month of the semester without a computer, phone or network access, the EFF said.
Calixte came under suspicion following a "domestic dispute" when a roommate told a police detective he had observed Calixte commit two computer crimes. When police requested a warrant to search the dorm room, much of the factual basis provided that a crime had been committed were two emails sent in early March that falsely claimed the roommate was participating on a gay dating website. At least one them was suspected to have been sent by Calixte.
In arguing the search warrant was properly issued, prosecutors argued the hoax emails might violate a Massachusetts statute barring the "unauthorized access" to a computer. Justice Botsford rejected that theory.
"The commonwealth's claim that such an email might be unlawful because it violates a hypothetical internet use policy maintained by BC both goes well beyond the reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the affidavit, and would dramatically expand the appropriate scope of" the statute, she wrote.
She went on to find there was no probable cause to support that Calixte illegally downloaded more than 200 movies and music files and accessed the BC grading system used by professors to change grades.
A PDF of the decision is here. ®