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BC student to get his computers back after high court throws out search warrant

Judge finds no probable cause to seize the equipment, orders its return

May 27, 2009 12:17 PM ET

Computerworld - Massachusetts' highest court ruled there was no probable cause for Boston College police to seize computers from the room of a student who was being investigated for allegedly sending an e-mail claiming that a fellow student was gay.

In an 11-page ruling last week, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford upheld a motion by computer science student Riccardo Calixte that sought to quash the search warrant that resulted in the seizure of his property on March 30.

Botsford also ordered a halt to all forensic analysis of the seized property and mandated that the equipment be immediately returned to Calixte. In doing so, the judge cited a complete "lack of both detail and corroboration" in the affidavit that had been filed by police when seeking the warrant to search Calixte's room.

Campus police searched Calixte's dorm room looking for evidence that he had sent e-mails claiming that a fellow student was gay and had used the equipment to change other students grades. Police carted away 23 items, including three laptops, two iPods, two cell phones, a digital camera and several storage devices. No criminal charges were brought against Calixte, 21, after the search.

The affidavit claimed that Calixte had broken two state laws involving unauthorized access to a computer and defrauding a commercial service provider when he sent the e-mails claiming another student was gay. That action caused considerable stress to the other student, the affidavit said, while also presenting evidence gathered from BC's director of IT security that tied Calixte's computer to the e-mails.

The affidavit also claimed Calixte used BC's computer networks to change grades for several students and "fixed" other students' computers so they couldn't be scanned for illegal music downloads. Most of the information in the affidavit was provided by the student whom Calixte had allegedly said was gay. It mentioned that Calixte had a reputation as a hacker and a "master of the trade," who used two operating systems to hide his activities.

The search was challenged by attorneys from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group, and the Boston office of law firm Fish & Richardson PC, which represented Calixte in the case.

In an emergency motion in early April, attorneys for the EFF and the law firm asked for a trial court to hear their arguments to quash the search warrant and have the seized property returned. Calixte's attorneys claimed that the affidavit contained nothing to show that a crime had taken place and that it was based largely on unsubstantiated information provided by a student with a grudge against Calixte. The motion also noted that most of the alleged activities mentioned in the affidavit had nothing directly to do with the criminal behavior Calixte was supposed to have engaged in.

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