Federal agents illegally seized ballplayers’ drug-test records, appeals court rules

Federal agents illegally seized confidential drug-testing records for hundreds of professional athletes while raiding a Bay Area lab and must return them, an appeals court ruled Monday.

It was the third ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the government exceeded the bounds of a search warrant executed in 2004, when federal agents were investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative for suspected sales of banned substances to 10 Major League Baseball players, including former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

Three federal district court judges had ruled in separate lawsuits over the last six years that the government violated the rights of the players to be free from unreasonable search and seizure when agents grabbed the computer records of drug tests on hundreds of professional athletes, not just the 10 for whom they had a warrant.

In a separate case brought by Bonds, the appeals court ruled in June that the seized lab results couldn’t be used against him at his perjury trial unless his trainer testified that the blood and urine samples came from the former Giants star. The trainer, Greg Anderson, has refused to testify against his lifelong friend and spent 15 months in prison on contempt charges.

A full 11-judge panel of the appeals court agreed to reconsider its August 2009 three-judge decision that the government violated the rights of players not covered by the search warrant and must return the confiscated drug-testing records to the Major League Baseball Players Assn. The appellate judges also upheld the lower-court rulings that all subpoenas issued as a result of the excessive seizure had to be quashed.

The illegally obtained evidence included results indicating that 104 Major League Baseball players had tested positive for steroid use during a 2003 confidential screening.

The court’s ruling reiterated the trial judges’ determinations that “the government’s actions displayed a callous disregard for the rights of third parties” and the consequences they could suffer in their professional lives from disclosure of the test results.

The full court’s decision included new guidance to law enforcement from Chief Judge Alex Kozinski on how to execute search warrants involving computer databases containing information outside the reach of court-authorized searches. Three of the 11 judges, all appointees of President George W. Bush, issued dissenting opinions, contesting the majority’s interpretation of search-and-seizure law.

Elliot Peters, the San Francisco attorney who represented the ballplayers, said that unless the government petitions the U.S. Supreme Court for review, the 9th Circuit ruling “puts an end to the government’s ability to use any of the seized materials.”

Legal experts have said that without the lab records to submit as evidence, the government would find it difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute any player for banned substance use, including Bonds.