What are the consequences for destroying electronic evidence?

What Kind of Paper Trail Is Inside Your Computer? Deleting It Is Not As Simple As Pressing Delete

Have you ever wondered what happens to electronic files when you press the delete button? Or what happens when you put them in the “e-trash?”  You may be surprised to find out that getting rid of electronic material is not as easy as it may seem.  And in many cases, actually deleting or tampering with electronic files or data can cause a great big legal headache.

The case of First Sr. Fin. Group LLC v. Watchdog explores and explains the issues that can arise when a person tries to permanently delete or tamper with electronic material that should have been protected and preserved for trial.

Here, Defendant was asked to preserve the computer she used to make allegedly disparaging and defamatory remarks under her pseudonym, “watchdog.”  The problem is that the computer was some how wiped clean of all electronic data after she was asked to it turn over to the experts.

Now, let’s back track for a moment.  Why is it such a big deal that data was deleted?  Don’t people delete files all the time?  The key to this problem is that electronic files and data can’t just be deleted unless very deliberate actions are taken.

When a file is technically “deleted,” it is simply hidden in the background of the computer and marked as, what we will call, disposable data.  Then, when the computer runs out of room to store more data, the disposable data is overwritten.

Now, this doesn’t mean there is absolutely no way to wipe the data from a computer. As the saying goes, if there is a will, there is a way! (Even is the way is frowned upon and could present major legal repercussions.)  In this case, someone used two programs called Erase Pro and CCleaner to effectively wipe MOST of the data from the computer involved in the case.

In legal speak, this is called spoliation of evidence, and if proven, it can mean serious repercussions.  Proving a person intentionally tampered with or destroyed evidence requires proof that a person:  (1) had control over the evidence; (2) the evidence had relevance to the claim; (3) actually suppressed or withheld the evidence; and (4) that person had a duty to preserve the evidence.

In this case, the judge held Defendant was liable for the spoliation of the evidence because Defendant met all of the above factors.  However, factors 2 and 3 are particularly relevant to eDiscovery.

In regards to the second element (whether the computer data was relevant to the claim), the judge turned to the data fragments recovered by the expert.  When a computer is wiped clean with Erase Pro and CCleaner, it still leaves behind fragments of data, which are like pieces of a ripped up letter.  In this case, the Judge determined that the data fragments provided enough information to show that the computer data was relevant to the case. As such, the second element was satisfied.

In regards to element 3 (whether the data was actually suppressed or withheld), the Judge’s main inquiry revolved around whether the use of CCleaner and Erase Pro is considered intentional.  As you might imagine, it was pretty obvious that the use of two separate types of software with the distinct purpose to clear the computer of data is an intentional act.  As such, the third element was satisfied.

The Defendant got lucky with a minor sanction of a fine, paying for the computer expert, and paying the other parties attorney’s fees related to the investigation of the computer.  However, this was nothing compared to those available for spoliation charges.  In more serious cases, the judge could hold that an adverse inference be drawn from the missing evidence, or the party could pay all fees related to the case.  In the most extreme cases, the Judge could choose to dismiss the case or find the case in favor of opposing party.

Overall, when it comes to electronic data there is one thing to remember.  Electronic data is extremely difficult to get rid of, and actually getting rid of it can mean serious legal consequences.

Victoria O’Connor Blazeski (formerly Victoria L. O’Connor) received her B.S. form Stevens Institute of Technology, and she will receive her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015.  Prior to law school, she worked as an account manager in the Corporate Tax Provision department of Thomson Reuters, Tax & Accounting.  Victoria is a former D3 college basketball player, and she has an interest in tax law and civil litigation.  After graduating, she will clerk for the Hon. Joseph M. Andresini, J.T.C. in the Tax Courts of New Jersey.  

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