Boston - A justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ordered police to return a laptop and other property seized from a Boston College computer science student's dorm room after finding there was no probable cause to search the room in the first place. The police were investigating whether the student sent hoax emails about another student.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Boston law firm Fish and Richardson are representing the computer science student, who was forced to complete much of the final month of the semester without his computer and phone. Boston College also shut off the student's network access in the wake of the now-rejected search.

"The judge correctly found that there was no legitimate reason to search and seize this student's property," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "Our client was targeted because law enforcement was improperly suspicious of our client's computer skills and misunderstood computer crime laws. We're grateful that the court was able to see through the commonwealth's smokescreen and rectify this mistake."

In her order Thursday, Justice Margot Botsford rejected the commonwealth's theory that sending a hoax email might be unlawful under a Massachusetts computer crime statute barring the "unauthorized access" to a computer, concluding that there could be no violation of what was only a "hypothetical internet use policy." Thursday's decision now stands as the highest state court opinion to reject the dangerous theory that terms of service violations constitute computer "hacking" crimes. Justice Botsford further found that details offered by police as corroboration of other alleged offenses were insufficient and did not establish probable cause for the search.

"No one should be subjected to a search like this based on such flimsy theories and evidence," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "The Fourth Amendment flatly bars such fishing expeditions. Computer expertise is not a crime, and it was inappropriate for the commonwealth to employ such transparent scare tactics in an attempt to hide the fact that they had no case."

EFF had appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Court with Fish & Richardson attorneys Adam Kessel, Lawrence Kolodney, and Tom Brown.

For the full order from Judge Botsford:

For more on this case:


Jennifer Stisa Granick
Civil Liberties Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Matt Zimmerman
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation