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Computer science student challenges tech seizure

Boston College grad student questions the grounds of a warrant that allowed police to search his dorm room and seize his computers, iPod, cell phone, and other devices.

A Boston graduate student is challenging the legality of a warrant that enabled police to search his dorm room and seize several of his computers, an iPod, a cell phone, and other devices.

Riccardo Calixte, a computer science student at Boston College, is petitioning the Newton District Court in Massachusetts for the immediate return of his property and is demanding that investigators be prohibited from any further searches or analysis of his digital data. The confiscation of Calixte's property was spurred by an investigation into who sent an e-mail to a Boston College mailing list alleging that Calixte's roommate is gay.

According to a complaint (PDF) Calixte filed April 10, the warrant issued is invalid because there was no probable cause to believe that a crime was committed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing Calixte and filed a memorandum (PDF) in support of Calixte's complaint.

Kevin Christopher, a detective for the Boston College Police Department, submitted an application (PDF) for a search warrant on March 30 and was granted the warrant (PDF) that day.

Christopher said in his application that, following a dispute between Calixte and his roommate in January, the roommate told an officer that Calixte was "involved in some computer hacking incidents." Christopher subsequently interviewed the roommate, who said among other things that Calixte has a reputation as a "hacker," uses two different operating systems to allegedly "hide his illegal activities," and that Calixte had hacked into the university grading system to change students' grades. The roommate also told Christopher that he had been the victim of a mass e-mail incident in which someone sent out attachments to a fake profile of the roommate on a gay Web site.

The police department was later asked to look into the origin of the mass e-mails, given the stress endured by the roommate, and the e-mails were allegedly traced back to Calixte. Christopher subsequently obtained the warrant in question, claiming that given all the information submitted about Calixte, his property would constitute evidence of the crimes of "obtaining computer services by fraud or misrepresentation" and obtaining "unauthorized access to a computer system."

The EFF is arguing it is irrelevant whether or not Calixte sent the e-mails, since the application for the warrant fails to establish probable cause that sending such an e-mail is a criminal offense.

Calixte "stands accused of fraud, though no money or thing of value is at issue," EFF said in its statement of support. "He is accused of 'hacking' merely by sending an e-mail to a list server. Without a crime, there is no just cause for the search."

Furthermore, the statement argues, "No evidence about the e-mail could conceivably have been stored on Mr. Calixte's cell phone or iPod, and yet neither has been returned after nearly two weeks. This scope of the seizure supports the inevitable conclusion that this investigation is a fishing expedition against a student whose reputation and indeed entire educational career has suffered at the hands of a former roommate who has painted an unflattering portrait of him to school officials."

No court date has yet been scheduled to hear Calixte's motion to quash the warrant.