Jacob Sullum

When federal agents searched the offices of Comprehensive Drug Testing in Long Beach, Calif., on April 8, 2004, they officially were looking for the records of 10 baseball players suspected of buying steroids from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), a sports nutrition center whose owners had been charged with illegal steroid distribution. They left with information that went far beyond what their warrant described, including data on 1,200 baseball players and almost 3,000 computer files unrelated to Major League Baseball drug testing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recently told the government it may keep these records because they were "intermingled" with the records of the 10 original targets. But you needn't worry about the privacy of your electronic records, as long as you're confident they haven't been hanging with the wrong crowd.

Then again, no one can be sure of that. According to the rule endorsed by the two-judge majority, wrote dissenting 9th Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas, the government "may seize, retain and view all confidential records in any electronic database on which private data responsive to a warrant resides." In effect, he said, this decision "removes confidential electronic records from the protections of the Fourth Amendment."

The majority said people who object to a seizure after the fact can ask a magistrate to review the information and decide whether there is probable cause to retain it. But the magistrate can let the government keep records outside the scope of the warrant if he or she decides they cannot be removed "without creating new documents" or "without distorting the character of the original document."

More important, by letting the government seize first and answer questions later, this approach puts the burden of preventing an unreasonable seizure on people who may not even realize their records have been taken. In this case, along with information on baseball players, whose union challenged the seizure, the government took the medical records of players in 13 other sports organizations, participants in three athletic competitions and employees of three businesses.

The baseball dragnet is bad enough, especially since management promised the players these drug tests, conducted in 2003, would remain anonymous and confidential. The tests were aimed at estimating the prevalence of steroid use in Major League Baseball, and they were not supposed to be the basis for disciplinary action, let alone criminal investigation.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Jacob Sullum's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.
©Creators Syndicate