Website-hosting company DreamHost accused the government of broadening its search warrant for information from the company Wednesday, despite investigators claiming to narrow the scope.
The government wants information about a website used to organize protests during President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. DreamHost refused to comply, and the government proposed narrowing the categories of information it would seek on Tuesday, ahead of a hearing on the matter scheduled for Thursday in D.C. Superior Court before Chief Judge Robert Morin.
In his reply Wednesday, DreamHost lawyer Raymond Aghaian said the proposal actually broadens the warrant. He wrote the modifications, articulated in an attachment to the warrant, add new crimes the government will search for evidence of. The original warrant sought evidence only for violations of the district’s anti-rioting statute.
“In doing so, the government has significantly altered the nature of the warrant it applied for, and therefore the information on which Senior Judge [Ronald] Wertheim based his probable cause determination,” Aghaian wrote in the brief. “The government has provided no authority for the proposition that it can seek to broaden a search warrant without a new probable cause determination and under a new sworn affidavit.”
The new crimes listed in the warrant include conspiracy to commit crime and malicious burning, destruction or injury of another’s property. The government has indicted more than 200 people for violations of the anti-rioting statute, and claims the website, disruptj20.org, was used to organize the riots.
DreamHost also took issue with the government’s request for all records relating to the site, including visitor logs, which would provide the IP addresses of more than a million visitors. In Tuesday’s filing, lawyers for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. sought to exclude the IP addresses as well as limit the warrant to the website’s records prior to Jan. 20. The brief also noted that unpublished drafts and “work products” should not be disclosed.
Aghaian wrote that despite this effort, the government’s modifications would still require DreamHost to hand over emails associated with the website, including emails sent by third parties to addresses like “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
“Allowing the government to identify the emails and communications with the third parties, that appear to fall outside the government’s ‘focus group,’ endangers the First Amendment rights of anyone falling outside this ‘focus group,’ the brief said.
Aghaian pointed to a decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last week, in which the court vacated a conviction because investigators used an overbroad warrant that allowed them to search a house and seize “all cell phones and electronic devices without regard to ownership” without probable cause. In DreamHost’s case, Aghaian wrote, the government is attempting to seize “all contents of email accounts that are within the @disruptj20.org domain” without probable cause.
The advocacy group Public Citizen has also asked to intervene in the case on behalf of individuals who visited the website. In a blog post Wednesday, Public Citizen lawyer Paul Levy wrote a “serious First Amendment issue” still remains with the warrant.
“Seizure of those emails would invade the right of the senders of those emails to speak anonymously, which is far better established in the law as a barrier to discovery than the right to read anonymously,” Levy wrote.