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Madeleine O’Neill//July 10, 2023
Laptop owner’s privacy rights extended to copy of hard drive: Md. Supreme Court

By Madeleine O’Neill
//July 10, 2023
A laptop owner who agreed to let government investigators make a “mirror image” copy of his hard drive had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data after he withdrew his consent to the search, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The government did not have the right to examine the copy of the laptop when the man backtracked, the justices decided, because the man’s privacy interest covered the data no matter where it was stored.
The man, 56-year-old Daniel A. McDonnell, was indicted in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on child pornography charges after authorities examined the data from his laptop.
The U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (USACIDC) asked McDonnell for consent to search the laptop after finding that his IP address had connected to a network that was being used to share images of child sexual abuse, according to the opinion.
McDonnell agreed that investigators could seize his laptop and make a copy of its contents, but withdrew his consent through his lawyer a few days later. The copy had already been made, but agents with USACIDC had not analyzed it yet.
“For the duration of Mr. McDonnell’s consent, USACIDC had the authority to examine the data; once the consent was withdrawn, the authority to examine went with it,” Justice Shirley M. Watts wrote. “…copying the same data to a different device that law enforcement officers have legal authority to possess makes no difference in the Fourth Amendment analysis.”
The unanimous Supreme Court rejected the state’s argument that McDonnell lost all privacy interest in the data on his hard drive when he allowed the government to make a copy of the information.
The decision ventures into the complicated territory of 4th Amendment protections in the digital age. Watts examined rulings from several states and federal courts before concluding that McDonnell’s privacy interest is in the data on his computer, not the medium on which the data is stored.
McDonnell’s lawyer, J. Dennis Murphy Jr., said copying a person’s digital data can reveal all kinds of secrets that other types of searches might not — for example, a person’s political leanings or sexual orientation.
“It’s really important that the appellate courts strictly apply the 4th Amendment to information on phones in order to protect our civil liberties,” Murphy said. “The Supreme Court really should be commended for that.”
After a circuit judge rejected a defense motion to suppress the laptop data, McDonnell pleaded not guilty with an agreed statement of facts and reserved his right to appeal. He was found guilty of three counts and sentenced to thirty years incarceration, all suspended, and five years of supervised probation.
The case will now be remanded to circuit court, where county prosecutors will decide whether to pursue or dismiss the charges.
Maryland’s Appellate Court overturned the conviction in December, saying consent to a warrantless search of a computer’s digital data can be withdrawn at any time before the search takes place.
The state then sought review by the Supreme Court. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office on Monday did not return a request for comment on the high court’s decision.
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