Search and Censure


For many computer users, the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, represents the bumbling arrogance of law-enforcement agents whose practices are ill-suited to the electronic age. In March, three years after the search and seizure, a federal judge agreed.

In the raid, which stemmed from the theft of a $13 telephone-company document, Secret Service agents seized three computers, including one that was used to operate an electronic bulletin-board service, hundreds of floppy disks, and several disk drives, including material that the company planned to publish. (See "Closing the Net," January 1991.) No one at Steve Jackson Games was ever charged with a crime.

Responding to a lawsuit filed by Jackson in 1991, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that the Secret Service had violated the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 by failing to obtain a subpoena for the company's records. (Unlike a search warrant, a subpoena can be challenged before it is executed.) Sparks also found that the Secret Service had violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act by reading and destroying computer messages. This is the first time that a federal judge has explicitly applied these statutes to electronic publishers and e-mail.

Sparks awarded Steve Jackson $50,000 to compensate for damage and lost profits caused by the search and seizure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which paid for the suit, is seeking to recover some of its costs, which exceeded $200,000, under the Privacy Protection Act.

"The judge was really annoyed with the Secret Service's overreaching," says EFF counsel Mike Godwin. The Houston Chronicle reported that Sparks was "visibly angry," scolding the Secret Service for seizing valuable material and holding it for months without giving copies to the game publisher. He suggested the Secret Service must have realized the seizure would hurt Jackson's business, adding: "You just had no idea anybody would actually go out and hire a lawyer and sue you."