An Ohio court had to choose how to print-outs of define electronic documents. In particular, the court had to consider whether the print-put of an email is an electronic document.
The case is State v. Wangler, 2012 Ohio 4878.
In 2006, the defendant and his wife were sleep in separate rooms. The defendant called 911, claiming that the carbon monoxide alarm in his residence was sounding and that his wife, a diagnosed epileptic, was having a seizure. The defendant told the dispatcher that he had opened the windows and began performing CPR. She appeared to be dead when help arrived.
As a result of testing of the furnace, the police became suspicious and executed a search warrant. Various items, including a personal computer, a laptop, various computer accessories, various data storage devices, a portable GPS unit, miscellaneous papers, three handwritten journals, cash, credit cards, jewelry, and books were seized. A few months later, a second search warrant was obtained and other items, including limited to, ductwork, the register from the wife’s bedroom, and a swatch of carpet surrounding the same register were seized.
As a result of testing, the defendant was charged with murder. The prosecution theory was that a car exhaust had been hooked up to the duct and register.
The court concluded, on review that law enforcement exceeded the scope of the first search warrant when it seized miscellaneous papers, handwritten journals, cash, jewelry, credit cards, a briefcase, a safe, a disposable camera, and headphones. The search warrant permitted the seizure of, in addition to computers, of “electronic records, communications, and documents” and “any and all electronic communications including but not limited to opened and unopened e-mail messages, instant messages (IM), letters and other electronic records, documents, correspondence, notes, memoranda, address lists, telephone directories, screen name lists, buddy lists, advertisements, calendars, diaries, journals, telexes, faxes * * *[.]”
The court interpreted this to mean that the police could seize “electronic records, communications, and documents.” The seizure of print out of emails and other documents created on a computer was permissible. However, hand written documents, such as a journal maintained by the defendant, were not within the scope of the warrant and, therefore, should not have been seized.
The court concluded the seizure of the journals was harmless error. The journals were used to support an argument that the defendant’s marriage was in trouble. However, the jury also heard from “several witnesses who testified in some detail about the difficulties” in the marriage. Accordingly, the journals were viewed as cumulative.
The court reviewed other potential claims – but rejected those arguments and affirmed the convictions.