Kansas Supreme Court overturns conviction because hard drive was searched without valid warrant

Agents of the Kansas State Gaming Agency visited Zeke Rupnick in his office, and questioned him about allegations that he was illegally in possession of confidential business information. The agents seized his laptop computer, and a magistrate in a different county issued a warrant authorizing the search of the hard drive’s contents. Rupnick was convicted of felony computer crime based on the evidence obtained from the laptop.

Before trial, Rupnick sought to suppress the evidence contained on the computer, claiming violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. Rupnick sought review with the Kansas Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction.

The court held that the initial seizure of the laptop computer from Rupnick’s office without a warrant was justified, on the basis of probable cause plus the exigent circumstances presented by the possibility that Rupnick could easily delete the relevant data. The later warrant and search of the laptop, however, provided the basis for the reversal of the conviction.

The court began its analysis of the legality of the search by answering the question, which was one of first impression before the court, of whether a warrant must be obtained before the government may search the contents of a personal computer. In answering the question in the affirmative, the court looked to the Tenth Circuit cases of U.S. v. Carey, 172 F.3d 1268 (10th Cir. 1999) and U.S. v. Walser, 275 F.3d 981 (10th Cir. 2001).

In this case, the agents had indeed obtained a warrant before searching the contents of the laptop’s hard drive. However, the warrant failed to comply with the relevant Kansas statute (K.S.A. 22-2503), which requires that the search warrant be executed in the judicial district in which the magistrate judge resides. Because the magistrate that issued the warrant did not reside in the county in which the warrant was executed (i.e., where the search of the hard drive was made), the warrant was invalid, and the search was unlawful.

Despite the government’s argument that the defect in the warrant was a mere “technical irregularity,” the court strictly enforced the statute. The felony conviction was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

State v. Rupnick, — P.3d —, 2005 WL 3439897 (Kan., December 16, 2005).

[Text of opinion]