The prohibition of the theft and hoarding of classified documents (along with other publically owned materials) in the law applies to everyone.
…This appeal requires us to consider whether the district court had jurisdiction to block the United States from using lawfully seized records in a criminal investigation. The answer is no.
Former President Donald J. Trump brought a civil action seeking an injunction against the government after it executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago residence. He argues that a court-mandated special master review process is necessary because the government’s Privilege Review Team protocols were inadequate, because various seized documents are protected by executive or attorney-client privilege, because he could have declassified documents or designated them as personal rather than presidential records, and—if all that fails—because the government’s appeal was procedurally deficient. The overnment disagrees with each contention.
In considering these arguments, we are faced with a choice: apply our usual test; drastically expand the availability of equitable jurisdiction for every subject of a search warrant; or carve out an unprecedented exception in our law for former presidents. We choose the first option. So the case must be dismissed…
…Indeed, Plaintiff does not press the district court’s theory on appeal. Instead, he argues that the Presidential Records Act gives him a possessory interest in the seized documents. This argument is unresponsive. Even if Plaintiff’s statutory interpretation were correct (a proposition that we neither consider nor endorse), personal interest in or ownership of a seized document is not synonymous with the need for its return.3 In most search warrants, the government seizes property that unambiguously belongs to the subject of a search. That cannot be enough to support equitable jurisdiction….
(footnote) 3 During discussion of this factor at oral argument, Plaintiff’s counsel noted that the seized items included “golf shirts” and “pictures of Celine Dion.” The government concedes that Plaintiff “may have a property interest in his personal effects.” While Plaintiff may have an interest in these items and others like them, we do not see the need for their immediate return after seizure under a presumptively lawful search warrant.
….Having failed to show his own need, Plaintiff attempts—as he did in the district court—to reverse the standard, arguing that the government does not need the non-classified documents for its investigation. This is not self-evident, but it would be irrelevant in any event. Plaintiff’s task was to show why he needed the documents, not why the government did not. He has failed to meet his burden under this factor….
….Plaintiff’s alternative framing of his grievance is that he needs a special master and an injunction to protect documents that he designated as personal under the Presidential Records Act. But as we have said, the status of a document as personal or presidential does not alter the authority of the government to seize it under a warrant supported by probable cause; search warrants authorize the seizure of personal records as a matter of course. The Department of Justice has the documents because they were seized with a search warrant, not because of their status under the Presidential Records Act. So Plaintiff’s suggestion that “whether the Government is entitled to retain some or all the seized documents has not been determined by any court” is incorrect. The magistrate judge decided that issue when approving the warrant. To the extent that the categorization of these documents has legal relevance in future proceedings, the issue can be raised at that time….
….The law is clear. We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so. Either approach would be a radical reordering of our caselaw limiting the federal courts’ involvement in criminal investigations. And both would violate bedrock separation-of-powers limitations. Accordingly, we agree with the government that the district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction, and that dismissal of the entire proceeding is required.
The district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction in this case. For that reason, we VACATE the September 5 order on appeal and REMAND with instructions for the district court to DISMISS the underlying civil action.
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