Every Man’s Evidence, Everywhere

They say the public has a right to every man’s evidence, but in a world full of digital evidence, what if it’s stored on servers in other countries?

We wrote about this case two summers ago. Back then, the Microsoft Corporation had just defied a federal search warrant that demanded a subscriber’s emails (and other data) as part of a criminal investigation. Microsoft had already produced all of the data that it stored on servers in the United States, but it refused to access and turn over the emails because they were stored in the Republic of Ireland. Instead, the company moved to quash the warrant, which the magistrate denied, and it was appealing that denial to the district court when we last wrote about it. As it happened, the district judge agreed with the magistrate and held the company in contempt of court for not obeying the warrant.

Well, three weeks ago, Microsoft won big in the court of appeals. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the warrant couldn’t be enforced against the emails because the federal law in question—the Stored Communications Act—did not authorize warrants to reach beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Courts must presume that a law applies only within the United States unless Congress clearly says otherwise, and it hadn’t done so here. One judge wrote separately to explain why it was a closer case and to urge Congress to update the Stored Communications Act for the 21st century.

For now, the decision binds federal courts in New York, Vermont, and Connecticut.

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