Computer Equipment Permanently Seized by Police
Sometime after a Pennsylvania couple’s romantic relationship had ended in high conflict, the man lost all of his computer equipment in a criminal forfeiture action.
The couple was in court repeatedly over the five years following the end of their relationship. The woman was granted a protective order. The man was investigated for separate criminal activity reported by the woman, but law enforcers concluded that no charges were warranted. In the course of the investigation, however, the man’s firearms were discovered and were seized as unlawful under federal law.
The man violated the protective order. He took to wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the woman’s photograph and the words “Lying Skank.” He vowed to maintain a crusade for justice to correct the court’s granting of the original protective order.
Despite warnings from the local judge, the man persisted in his quest. In fact, he served a maximum sentence for violating the protective order, simply because he would not agree, in parole proceedings, to leave the woman alone. Shortly after his release from jail, the man sent a foreboding e-mail to the woman’s sister, suggesting that if the sister had anything she “ever wished to say” to the man or woman, she should do it right away.
The e-mail address that the man used for himself was formed by the woman’s initials and the word “killer.” The man also created a MySpace social network website on which he identified himself as the woman’s “terminator.” He linked a rock song entitled “I Used to Love Her But I Had to Kill Her” to his MySpace site and posted numerous threatening references to the woman on the site.
The man was arrested for violating the ongoing protective order, and his computer and computer equipment were seized by the police. After the conclusion of the violation proceedings, the man petitioned the court for the return of his computer and computer equipment. Generally, property seized in criminal proceedings is returned to the owner if it is not contraband or otherwise illegal.
The trial judge initially decided that all of the computer equipment should be returned to the man because it was not illegal to possess computer equipment and the man simply could replace it with new equipment if he chose to do so.
The prosecutors appealed and won. The appeals court held that when computer equipment is used to “threaten and terrorize” another person, it falls within the definition of “contraband” and must be forfeited to the state.
While the facts of this case are dramatic and unusual, the legal principle is simple. Using a computer to commit a crime can justify law enforcement’s seizure of the computer and related equipment, and the loss of the computer and equipment may well be permanent.