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Can one click become probable cause?

It's sometimes difficult to tell when a link on the internet is safe or not. There are people in the world who set up links for everything from practical jokes to scams. Keeping your wits about you while surfing the internet is crucial and can even have constitutional implications.

Imagine that link you clicked on one day eventually leads to the police showing up to your front door or even criminal charges. Can that one link click be probable cause for a search that allows law enforcement to gather evidence against you? This is what a recent case in Virginia tried to determine.

A Virginia man found himself in the middle of this scenario in November 2015. Police reported someone using an IP traced to the man clicked on a link containing illicit material, which results in a search warrant of his home. The basis of the search warrant was a single click of a link, which in and of itself, did not indicate or otherwise reference illicit material. The government did not have any corroborating evidence or information to establish the man knowingly attempted to access illicit material, but instead only that a single URL link was clicked.

As a result, the defense argued that the search warrant use to gather the evidence was inadmissible because the police didn't have probable cause to search the defendant's property. However, the defendant was eventually convicted with this evidence and the defendant appealed.

The ongoing constitutional debate

While the court ruled 2-1 to uphold the search warrant in early August, this conversation is far from over. The constitution guarantees citizens privacy rights, and that includes the web. William Ashwell of Mark B. Williams & Associates, PLC worked on the defense team of the man. Ashwell has practiced law in Virginia for nearly a decade and is a firm believer in the rights of Virginians online and offline.

"The importance of the issues raised in this appeal cannot be overstated and will constitutionally impact countless individuals now and, in the future," said Ashwell.

"The digital age will continue to raise complicated and diverse issues for our justice system to consider. It is our hope that everyone recognizes the importance of safeguarding individual liberties in the internet age."

Ashwell and the defense weren't alone in their concern for the precedent this case could set.

Judge James Wynn, who voted against upholding the warrant, called this case "a textbook example of why we must guard against the slow whittling away of constitutional rights, particularly as we apply constitutional rights adopted in an analog era to the new challenges of the digital age."

The defense will once again push for a rehearing of the facts in their client's casein the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and are willing to escalate this to the Supreme Court if it becomes necessary.

Sometimes you need help fighting for your rights

Just because the law appears to be catching up to the digital age, doesn't mean that people should have their rights infringed upon. Someone who feels that law enforcement or the government is violating their privacy rights needs a tenacious advocate like William D. Ashwell of Mark B. Williams and Associates, PLC in their corner.

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