WASHINGTON (CN) – Investigating violence at Inauguration Day protests, federal prosecutors got a court’s green light Thursday to execute a search warrant on an anti-Trump website.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Morin read his order from the bench this morning, compelling the release of emails transmitted via the domain disruptj20.org, which is hosted by DreamHost, as well as related databases and other information.
The government says protesters who caused the violence during the inauguration of President Donald Trump used the site to coordinate their plans. DreamHost on the other hand claims the government’s request would sweep up innocent people participating in political activity.
Responding to DreamHost’s concerns, Judge Morin ordered the government to file declarations detailing who will search the information the company turns over, what process they will use to conduct the search and what steps they will take to stop innocent people from getting caught up with evidence central to the investigations.
The government will also file all of the information it deems responsive to its warrant under seal with the court and will do the same with anything it does not need. Morin’s decision to have the government file all information it says is responsive to the warrant goes a step beyond a solution prosecutors offered on Tuesday, in which they proposed the government file only information it decides it does not need.
After reading his order, Morin said the arrangement will hurdle possible First and Fourth Amendment concerns.
“I appreciate that I’m trying to balance First Amendment protections and their need for the information,” Morin said Thursday.
The warrant is part of the prosecution of nearly 200 people who face criminal charges in the Washington court for their roles in violence that broke out during Inauguration Day protests. Nineteen people have already pleaded guilty to various crimes committed that day, which included smashed windows and scuffles with police officers.
DreamHost announced last week that it was fighting the search warrant, saying it violates the First Amendment and could implicate the IP addresses of as many as 1.3 million people who visited the site.
The government dropped its request for the IP addresses in a reply brief filed on Tuesday, when it also offered to file nonresponsive information it received from DreamHost under seal with the court. Prosecutors also limited the timeline of the search in the brief, a timeline Morin further truncated in his order on Thursday.
DreamHost and the government argued in court for roughly an hour on Thursday morning, with the company warning the search warrant would chill free speech and political association even if Morin put in place protections to ensure that innocent people are not swept up in the search.
Raymond Aghaian, a partner at the California firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton who argued for DreamHost, told Morin that because the government’s request includes information about email addresses hosted on the domain, emails sent from innocent people could also become part of the search.
Aghaian likened the effort to the government searching an entire apartment complex based on a search warrant for a single unit in the building, which he said would be clearly unconstitutional. He said the mere requirement for DreamHost to hand the government site information chills free speech, no matter what happens with the information after the government takes control.
“When it comes to sensitive First Amendment issues such as this one, it should not be the case where the government gets to rummage through material to determine whether something is valid or not,” Aghaian told reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing.
The government was represented in the matter by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Borchert. He said the compromise on IP addresses, coupled with the offer to file nonresponsive information with the court, was enough to protect the rights of people who visited the site innocently.
He also argued the government has a clear interest in reviewing emails connected to the website, suggesting a hypothetical situation in which site administrators put together an email chain identifying all people who planned to bring a crowbar to the rally.
“There may be criminal conduct there and there may be protected conduct there,” Borchert said at the hearing.
Aghaian told reporters after the hearing DreamHost has not yet resolved to appeal the ruling. Morin denied Aghaian’s request at the hearing to stay the order until the company had the chance to appeal the decision, though he said the government should not start its search of DreamHost’s information until after the appeals process is complete.