The federal government illegally seized confidential drug test results of dozens of Major League Baseball players and must now return the records, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
"This was an obvious case of deliberate overreaching by the government in an effort to seize data" it was not entitled to have, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
During an investigation of illegal steroid sales by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a private lab in Northern California known as BALCO, the government sought the results of confidential drug tests of 10 players, including former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.
But when searching the records, the government came across test results for more than 100 players who had tested positive for banned substances. The records stemmed from a confidential screening of players in 2003 to determine whether compulsory, random drug testing was needed.
The government took the records of all players who tested positive and argued that the law allowed the seizure because the records were in plain view of investigators.
The players being tested were promised anonymity. The names of some players who allegedly tested positive during that screening, including Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, were later leaked to the news media.
In ruling against the government Wednesday, the appeals court said the government could keep only the records involving the 10 players named in the warrant.
BALCO investigators deliberately withheld information when they sought the warrant, the court said, and a series of events supported the "suspicion that representations in the warrant . . . were designed to give the government access to the full list of professional baseball players and their confidential drug testing records."
"The government agents obviously were counting on the search to bring constitutionally protected data into the plain view of the investigating agents," Kozinski wrote.
The court acknowledged that searches of computers will often reveal unauthorized information and suggested a series of steps judges should take to avoid such releases.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco declined to comment on the ruling and said the government has not yet decided whether to appeal.
Ethan Atticus Balogh, a lawyer for the players' association, said the ruling should deter people from illegally divulging names on the list. "Whoever has leaked them has violated the courts' orders, and that is illegal conduct," Balogh said.
Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.