Magazine article Risk Management

Search Warrant Basics

Magazine article Risk Management

Search Warrant Basics

Article excerpt

When armed government agents enter your office, seize your computers and talk to your employees, the business day has gotten off to a rough start. It only gets worse when the news shows video of agents in raid jackets carrying your eyecatching, focus group-tested logo. As the days go on, you are busy reassuring customers, vendors and employees that despite early reports and comments made by the government and your competitors, it is all going to be fine and you are going to get back to business as usual.

Presented with this hypothetical situation, many adopt a similar response: it won't happen to me. But any business that operates in a heavily regulated area or partners with any federal agency needs to appreciate that government inquiries are simply part of operating in that space. The FBI is not the only investigative agency; it is just as likely that the Environmental Protection Agency or the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General will be at the front desk with a warrant in hand and a team ready to cart away the infrastructure and knowledge of your business. Will you be ready?

Good planning as part of a regular annual review can help settle nerves, avoid costly mistakes, and put you in the best defensive position should that fateful day come when the feds show up at your door. Follow this five-part plan and you will be much better off.

Summon the Team

Just as the agents did the morning before the search, you need to assemble your response team. The government has specialized people with individual roles and you need to have the same type of team. Some people on your team are there because you want them there. Others make the team because they sit at the reception desk or close to the front door. Either way, they are now on the same team.

The point person on the team has to be the in-house counsel. The agent may not let the receptionist place a series of calls, but the receptionist should be permitted to call the in-house counsel to notify her of the situation. From that point on, the command center shifts from the front desk to counsel's desk.

The next call should be made from the company's general counsel to outside criminal counsel. A general litigation or M&A background may be well suited for the company's general needs, but on this day, the needs are quite different. Outside criminal counsel needs to begin the dialogue with the agent and the prosecutor, and should send someone to the scene if possible.

The response team should also include the heads of IT, security and communications. The IT officer must make sure that, as the search is conducted, intrusion into the system can be minimized so that the business may continue operation. If the IT officer is not permitted to assist with the search, it is critical that he observes all actions taken by the government related to any IT matters. This observation may be valuable at some point in the future if computer records are compromised or lost. This is just as important for information that may tend to show some violation of the law as it is for information that may support defense or a claim of actual innocence. The Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the Criminal Division has produced a manual for the search and seizure of computer records and an expert can help evaluate law enforcement's compliance with its own approved procedures.

If your company is a manufacturer or scientific production company where the question at issue may be the quality, characteristics or integrity of a product, it is important that you demand an equal sample from the same source and under the same conditions as those taken by the seizing agents. This is important so that your own experts can review a similar sample for your own testing in defense. If this is not possible given the type of product seized, your outside counsel will work with prosecutors and agents to assert your rights to preserve evidence for future testing. …

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