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Probable cause showdown averted

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The federal government has dropped its controversial bid to read messages in a Yahoo! email account without getting a search warrant.

In a two-page document filed Friday, federal prosecutors in Colorado said the documents "would not be helpful to the government's investigation," the specifics of which have never been disclosed. The withdrawal puts to rest the legal fight over whether the US Constitution requires prosecutors to seek a search warrant before accessing email stored by service providers.

"While this is a great victory for that Yahoo! subscriber, it's disappointing to those of us who wanted a clear ruling on the legality and constitutionality of the government's overreaching demand," wrote Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, part of a coalition of groups that opposed the government's action. "Such demands are apparently a routine law enforcement technique."

The retreat precludes the possibility of a court precedent requiring a search warrant, he added.

It comes after the EFF, Google and other groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief that backed Yahoo in opposing the search. They said that both the Fourth Amendment and the Stored Communications Act clearly required the government to seek a warrant based on probable cause a crime had been committed

The government had argued no warrant was necessary as long as the emails were relevant to an ongoing investigation. A PDF of the government's brief is here. ®

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