Can the Police Use Your Search History Against You?

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When you are charged with a crime, the prosecutor has the burden of proving that you are guilty of committing that crime. The police collect evidence that supports that burden of proof. The digital times we live in give the police access to other avenues of evidence, such as finding when and where suspects were through cell tower data dumps and investigating search histories. However, there are specific procedures that police have to follow to obtain this type of information. 

If you have been charged with a crime and the police offer search history evidence as proof of your crime, skilled defense attorneys can assess and refute this evidence based on the legalities of its relevance to your charge and the acquisition of the evidence. Then, they can argue the merits of the evidence in front of a judge and have your charge reduced, dismissed, or achieve a not-guilty verdict.  

How Can Police Examine Your Search History?

Police do not have to have access to your machine or digital devices to examine your search history. They can go directly to the internet service provider (ISP) to track down internet protocol (IP) addresses and then inspect the search history of that particular IP address. IP addresses identify specific computers or networks and allow computers and networks to access the internet and send and receive information. 

For example, there was a crime against a victim. The police might ask the ISP to find out if any IP addresses happened to be searching for information on the victim, like where they live or work, around the particular time the crime was committed. If this data is available, they can find the names and contact information of possible suspects.

On the other hand, if the police already have the names and contact information of potential suspects, they can ask the ISP for the IP address of the suspects and investigate their search histories for a link to the crime. This data will be available through the ISP even if the search history has been deleted through the computer or digital device it originated from. The law obligates ISPs to store the records of your online activity. However, they only have to retain the data for up to two years, so it may no longer exist if the search history is older than that.

When Can Police Investigate Your Search History?

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was enacted to uphold the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which assures that the general population will not be violated by unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement officials must have warrants issued based on the probable cause of wrongdoing to infringe on a person’s privacy and security to discover evidence.

The ECPA has evolved to include computer-stored data like emails and search histories. When investigators ask ISPs for information, the ECPA, specifically the Stored Communications Act (SCA), prevents ISPs from voluntarily providing specific customer communication information and records without being presented with a search warrant based on probable cause. The warrant gives investigators the legal authority to access that information. 

Why Search History Investigations Are Conducted

Investigating search histories can provide insight into the suspect’s state of mind, behavior, and intent. For example, white-collar and internet crimes and fraud suspects may search for ways to falsify documents, exploit loopholes, or hide assets. Suspects in murder cases may have searched for products to purchase, such as guns or poisons, or researched methods of murdering someone. Other suspects in murder and sex crime cases may have tried to search for the victim’s personal information.

For example, a convicted kidnapper and rapist searched online for the victim’s residence and other information about the victim hours before the kidnapping and rape occurred. The defendant appealed the conviction on the grounds that the search warrant that allowed access to his search history was not based on probable cause but was created to perform a general investigation of the suspect’s search history. 

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that the warrant that was issued was supported by probable cause. Law enforcement had information that the perpetrator seemed familiar with the victim and her residence. This information contributed to the probability that the individual had stalked the victim online by searching for her name and address before committing the crime.

Consult the Pennsylvania Defense Attorneys at Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg & Gifford, P.C.

If you have been charged with a crime and do not understand your rights, the attorneys at Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg & Gifford, P.C., are knowledgeable and skilled in the law pertaining to your charge. They will assess your case, analyze the evidence against you, and devise the best legal strategy for your situation.

The attorneys at RGSG will stand up and fight to protect your rights, including your Fourth Amendment rights. Call us at (215) 822-7575 or complete our contact form if you need skilled defense attorneys to represent you during this anxious and stressful time.