In re Appeal of Application of Search Warrant (Vermont)

In May 2011, EFF partnered with the ACLU and the ACLU of Vermont to urge the Vermont Supreme Court to authorize courts to impose limitations on the police's ability to search computers and other forms of electronic evidence.

In connection with an investigation into identity theft, Vermont investigators applied for a search warrant to seize and search a number of computers, cell phones, tablets and other forms of digital media. Even though investigators noted some of the devices may be owned by people not suspected of a crime, they requested broad authorization into the devices and all data stored within. The court approved the search warrant, but uneasy with the potential privacy intrusions of such a broad request, imposed restrictions on law enforcement's execution of the search, including: (1) the search had to be performed by third parties or police personnel segregated from the main investigators, who would segregate irrelevant information before disclosing it to the investigators; (2) investigators had to use focused search techniques to capture only information relevant to their investigation and needed prior judicial authorization to use specailized searching tools; and (3) investigators could only copy relevant data, and had to destroy non-responsive data and return the devices promptly.

Unhappy with these limitations, state prosecutors filed a petition for extraordinary relief with the Vermont Supreme Court, asking that the original warrant application be approved without these restrictions. Since there was no defendant in the case, EFF, the ACLU and the Vermont Defender General filled the role of the opposing party in amicus briefs. 

In December 2012, the Court rejected the government's arguments and agreed with us, ruling that judges were authorized with the discretion to impose these types of restrictions in order to preserve privacy, particularly because computers contain enormous amounts of data.

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