Appeals Court: Feds Can Keep All Records Seized In Mar-a-Lago Raid, And There’s Nothing Trump Can Do About It
11th Circuit: “The district court improperly exercised equitable jurisdiction in this case.”
In a sweeping decision today, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Donald Trump’s civil lawsuit seeking court supervision of the DOJ/FBI’s review of documents seized in the Mar-a-Lago raid was invalid, the district court never should have exercised jurisdiction, with the implication that the Special Master process was unauthorized.
The decision points to a massive gap in citizens’ rights. So long that the government lawfully convinces a magistrate judge — in an ex parte proceeeding in which the target has no role — that probable cause exists for a search warrant, the target cannot challenge the government’s possession of documents and property seized within the scope of the warrant. There are some rare exceptions where property is urgently needed by the target, but the types of records seized in Trump’s case did not fall under those exceptions. The only remedy is to move to keep the records out of evidence if there is a criminal prosecution — but during the investigative stage, tough luck.
Here, of course, the search warrant was massively overly broad. And allowed the feds to sweep up a wide range of documents, basically anything in the vicinity of the documents marked classified. Tax, medical, and other records were swept up for review by the feds.
Here’s some key excerpts, but understand, you have almost no rights in the face of federal government-obtained search warrants, unless and until you are prosecuted.
From the Opinion:
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 courtmandated 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 government disagrees with each contention.
These disputes ignore one fundamental question—whether the district court had the power to hear the case. After all: “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute, which is not to be expanded by judicial decree.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994) (citation omitted).
This case was such an expansion. Exercises of equitable jurisdiction—which the district court invoked here—should be “exceptional” and “anomalous.” Hunsucker v. Phinney, 497 F.2d 29, 32 (5th Cir. 1974).1 Our precedents have limited this jurisdiction with a four-factor test. Richey v. Smith, 515 F.2d 1239, 1243–44 (5th Cir. 1975). Plaintiff’s jurisdictional arguments fail all four factors.
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.
The case is over for all pracitcal purposes:
… Now, with the benefit of oral argument, we conclude that the district court lacked jurisdiction to consider Plaintiff’s initial motion or to issue any orders in response to it….
As for records that may otherwise be “sensitive,” it cannot be that prosecutors reading unprivileged documents seized pursuant to a lawful warrant constitutes an irreparable injury for purposes of asserting equitable jurisdiction. Here too, Plaintiff’s argument would apply to nearly every subject of a search warrant. The district court’s unsupported conclusion that government possession of seized evidence creates an “unquantifiable” risk of public disclosure is not enough to show that Plaintiff faces irreparable harm….
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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