Terry Hart, who has become the go-to guy for eloquent defenses of the copyright maximalist's legal arguments lately, is at it again with a post supposedly claiming to debunk some of the posts from here on Techdirt
concerning Homeland Security's seizure of domain names
. Specifically, the posts that he claims to be debunking are the three posts I made highlighting the technical and legal errors
in the affidavit
ICE special agent Andrew Reynolds used to get a warrant to seize the domains, as well as the post which highlighted how all four songs he named to get "probable cause" for the seizure of the popular DJ blog dajaz1.com were all sent legally
for the purpose of promotions.
Hart claims that if there are any errors in the affidavit they don't matter
Are there errors in the affidavit? If so, do they even matter? The answer is no.
Hart's reasoning is that since Homeland Security only has to show "probable cause" in its affidavit, the various errors don't matter. Now, without a doubt, the standard for probable cause is different than for guilt in a trial. But that does not mean there are no
standards. He quotes various Supreme Court rulings, which grant law enforcement leeway in filing the affidavits and reaching the probable cause barriers, and specifically noting that some level of mistakes are allowed. Specifically, he quotes Brinegar v. United States
, where the court gives law enforcement some leeway for errors:
These long-prevailing standards seek to safeguard citizens from rash and unreasonable interferences with privacy and from unfounded charges of crime. They also seek to give fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection. Because many situations which confront officers in the course of executing their duties are more or less ambiguous, room must be allowed for some mistakes on their part. But the mistakes must be those of reasonable men, acting on facts leading sensibly to their conclusions of probability. The rule of probable cause is a practical, nontechnical conception affording the best compromise that has been found for accommodating these often opposing interests. Requiring more would unduly hamper law enforcement. To allow less would be to leave law-abiding citizens at the mercy of the officers’ whim or caprice.
With all due respect to Hart, I believe his analysis falls short on a variety of different factors. First, I believe he greatly simplifies the overall ruling in Brinegar to a level that the Court almost certainly did not intend. It does allow for some mistakes (in Brinegar it was a small one). It does not allow for massive mistakes that undermine the entire probability equation that makes up probable cause. Obviously, it's expected that sometimes errors will be made. But, given the vast number of errors in this affidavit, combined with the seriousness of those errors, and the fact that (especially with dajaz1) they made up the very core of the probable cause argument, it would seem that the "balance" would shift against this affidavit having been properly executed.
Furthermore, among the Supreme Court quotes that Hart uses to support his argument is the idea that mistakes are okay because the affidavits are done "in the midst of haste of a criminal investigation." There was no urgency here, however. These sites had all been operating for years, and there was no likelihood that they would suddenly disappear. There was no reason for haste, and thus, less of an excuse for the sort of errors which may be acceptable under other circumstances. Even Hart admits that the "leeway" is about "the realities of law enforcement." The realities in this case were that there was no such urgency, and thus the mistakes are less excusable than they might be elsewhere.
More serious than this is the fact that Hart seems to ignore the specifics of what was seized and why. He notes, accurately, that seizure is much like an arrest, done prior to a trial, but (conveniently) leaves out the basis
for seizures, which is supposed to be about preventing the destruction of evidence. As the Court notes in Heller v. New York
, the purpose of content-based seizures is "preserving it as evidence." As we have already noted, that makes little sense in this situation, as the domain names would not and could not be "destroyed," in any meaningful manner -- and it's easy to copy the contents of the site to preserve that as evidence. Agent Reynolds explanation for why a seizure was necessary was that he was afraid that some third party might somehow get the domain name and continue the criminal copyright infringement, ignoring that an injunction could easily prevent that, and the actual likelihood of that scenario happening was close to nil.
However, the biggest flaw in Hart's argument is that he focuses solely on the issue of probable cause for warrants, and pays no attention to the key issue that we brought up: how seizing full domain names without an adversarial hearing, based on a series of legal and technical errors is almost certainly prior restraint, and a violation of the First Amendment. As was made quite clear in Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana
, when a seizure involves issues of protected speech, a higher bar is required:
Thus, while the general rule under the Fourth Amendment is that any and all contraband, instrumentalities, and evidence of crimes may be seized on probable cause (and even without a warrant in various circumstances), it is otherwise when materials presumptively protected by the First Amendment are involved... It is "[t]he risk of prior restraint, which is the underlying basis for the special Fourth Amendment protections accorded searches for and seizure of First Amendment materials" that motivates this rule.
This line of thinking goes back through a long, long, long line of cases, many of which repeat the famous line: "Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity." In seizure cases where expressive speech is part of what is removed from circulation, the bar is higher than your average probable cause. That's why those errors are incredibly important, and the lack of any attempt to avoid First Amendment issues is glaring. Hart doesn't mention any of this, which I find surprising.
Finally, Hart closes his post (somewhat out of character for him) by suggesting our motivations for highlighting the problematic nature of the affidavit, arguing that we really don't care about the errors, and our posts are really just another way of attacking copyright law. I would suggest that Hart focus his analysis on legal issues, rather than playing amateur psychologist. My problem with the seizures is not about copyright law (though, I obviously have serious concerns about copyright law as well), but with the clear issue of a violation of the First Amendment. Separately, while Hart seems fine with it (as do the courts), I remain seriously troubled by the entire seizure process, which is widely abused, in cases where it has nothing to do with taking possession of evidence that might otherwise disappear. Playing those concerns down because there's a copyright element to this and I'm a critic of copyright law as it stands today is simply inaccurate, and seems like a cheap shot designed -- unfairly -- to attack my credibility on the situation at hand.