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Judge rescinds order to seize juror's home computers in Buju Banton case

Published Jan. 9, 2013

TAMPA — A federal judge who took the unusual step of ordering the seizure of a juror's home computers in the drug case involving reggae star Buju Banton rescinded his order Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody had issued an order Friday that a U.S. marshal visit the home of juror Terri Wright of Tampa to seize her computers after allegations she conducted research on Banton's case during his 2011 trial.

But the judge reconsidered after a prosecutor raised privacy and due process concerns. Moody instead instructed Wright to bring the hard drive of any computer she owns or the computer itself to a court hearing on Feb. 19.

Moody had instructed a marshal to seize the computers at the request of the defense during a telephone hearing with lawyers in the case last week. Wright had not been given notice of that hearing and so was unable to contest the seizure.

But on Tuesday, Moody said Wright has the right to have an attorney present at next month's hearing. Moody said he would consider appointing counsel if Wright cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Banton's attorneys are seeking a new trial for Banton, 39, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges after his conviction in 2011. His lawyers note that Wright is quoted in an October Miami New Times story saying she conducted Internet research on Banton's case during his trial.

That would violate a judge's instructions against doing so and could be grounds for throwing out Banton's conviction. At a hearing last month, Wright said she did the research after the trial ended, not before.

A defense expert was to have examined the computers to determine if Wright is telling the truth.

An order for the seizure of a juror's property is rarely seen in either federal or state court. And in a motion on Monday, federal prosecutor James Preston questioned whether Moody's order violated Wright's privacy and constitutionally guaranteed due process protections.

Preston said the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizures.

Police, he noted, normally need a court-authorized warrant "supported by probable cause" to seize and search property in a criminal investigation.

And the judge, the prosecutor said, provided no directions on how to go about the seizure.

According to the motion, "The order theoretically would permit the marshal to enter the juror's home, business or vehicle and take any computer device (desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone) found therein. The order allows for these devices to be held indefinitely, without any regard for the disruption the loss of personal computers might have on Ms. Wright's affairs."

These actions, the motion said, "invite an invasion of privacy."

Wright, who was foreman of the Banton jury, could not be reached for comment. Moody's office said the judge cannot comment on a pending case. His brief ruling Tuesday did not offer the reasoning for his reversal.

Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he has never seen a similar judge's order to seize a juror's property.

"I think the prosecutor has raised very serious privacy concerns with the manner in which this seizure will be done," said Marshall, who is not affiliated with the case.

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