Fourth Circuit affirms Lavabit contempt order

April 16

I’ve blogged several times about the Lavabit apppeal in the Fourth Circuit, see here (Lavabit brief), here (DOJ brief), and here (oral argument). This morning, the Fourth Circuit handed down its ruling affirming the contempt sanctions, United States v. Lavabit. Notably, however, the Fourth Circuit did not reach the big issues Lavabit wanted the Fourth Circuit to decide.

The Fourth Circuit first reasoned that fundamental or plain error review applied because Lavabit had failed to raise the key issues in the district court:

In the district court, Lavabit failed to challenge the statutory authority for the Pen/Trap Order, or the order itself, in any way. Yet on appeal, Lavabit suggests that the district court’s demand for the encryption keys required more assistance from it than the Pen/Trap Statute requires. Lavabit never mentioned or alluded to the Pen/Trap Statute below, much less the district court’s authority to act under that statute. In fact, with the possible exception of an undue burden argument directed at the seizure warrant, Lavabit never challenged the district court’s authority to act under either the Pen/Trap Statute or the SCA.
. . .
Neither the district court nor the Government therefore had any signal from Lavabit that it contested the district court’s authority under the Pen/Trap Statute to enter the Pen/Trap Order or the June 28th Order. In fact, by conceding at the August 1 hearing “that the [G]overnment [was] entitled to the [requested] information,” it likely led the district court to believe exactly the opposite. (J.A. 108.) Accordingly, Lavabit failed to preserve any issue for appeal related to the Pen/Trap Statute or the district court’s authority to act under it.
. . .
Lavabit tenders other reasons why we should exercise our discretion to hear its Pen/Trap Statute argument, but we find no merit in those arguments. We doubt that Lavabit’s listed factors could ever justify de novo review of an argument raised for the first time on appeal in a civil case in this circuit.

On appeal, though, Lavabit did not directly argue that there was fundamental or plain error:

Lavabit failed to make its most essential argument anywhere in its briefs or at oral argument: it never contended that the district court fundamentally or even plainly erred in relying on the Pen/Trap Statute to compel Lavabit to produce its keys. Yet Lavabit bears the burden of showing, “at a minimum,” plain error. And a party’s failure to raise or discuss an issue in his brief is to be deemed an abandonment of that issue. Taken together, these two principles carry us to one inevitable conclusion: Lavabit’s failure to argue for plain error and its application on appeal surely marks the end of the road for its argument for reversal not first presented to the district court.

The Fourth Circuit concludes:

In view of Lavabit’s waiver of its appellate arguments by failing to raise them in the district court, and its failure to raise the issue of fundamental or plain error review, there is no cognizable basis upon which to challenge the Pen/Trap Order. The district court did not err, then, in finding Lavabit and Levison in contempt once they admittedly violated that order.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law. Kerr is a former law clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy at the U.S. Supreme Court. From 1998 to 2001, he was a Trial Attorney in the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2013, Chief Justice Roberts appointed Kerr to a 3-year term on the Advisory Committee for the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. You can follow him on Twitter @orinkerr.
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Will Baude | April 16