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State’s case against deputy suffers setback

The state of Wisconsin’s case against a Taylor County sheriff’s deputy facing felony misconduct charges suffered a setback last week.

Deputy Steve Bowers faces two felony charges stemming from an incident occurring in February 2017 involving the unauthorized sharing of investigation case files with a true crime television program. Bowers was placed on paid leave pending the investigation and county administrative punishment and was charged by the attorney general’s office in October 2017.

A key piece of the state’s case against Bowers was that case files were on his private DropBox online file storage account and had been shared.

Last December, Judge Robert Russell ruled that the county’s search of the account was done improperly and required getting a warrant. As a result of the improper search any evidence from that search would be suppressed and not be allowed to be included in the eventual court trial.

The state disagreed with that ruling and filed a motion seeking Russell to reconsider it presenting briefs and evidence to support their position. Bowers’ attorney Rick Cveykus countered with their own briefs and arguments.

In a hearing held July 15, Judge Russell denied the motion to reconsider and affirmed his previous ruling that the evidence from the search of the DropBox would be suppressed. The hearing was held at the Taylor County courthouse with the judge, and each of the attorneys as well as Bowers appearing via Zoom.

During the investigation into Bowers, then sheriff Bruce Daniels had directed county information technology director Melissa Lind to attempt a password reset to gain access to the DropBox account. The account had been set up using Bowers’ county-issued email account as the access for it. Under the existing internet use policies, deputies were allowed to use the county email address for personal use.

Throughout the case, Bowers and his attorney have asserted the file storage account was his private property since it was not hosted on county equipment and was paid for by Bowers.

The judge’s ruling reaffirms this and cites the testimony given by Lind that it is a cloud based application and that if it had been used it would synchronize with any device it was on. Judge Russell noted that in Lind’s testimony on the matter, the county never searched the countyissued cellphone nor other items in Bowers’ email but simply used the email as a way to reset and log into the DropBox account.

Russell equated the DropBox account with being the same as a home computer, iPad or personal cellphone and not subject to the county’s information technology policy. Russell stated Bowers had an expectation of privacy in using the Drop-Box application.

Russell stated that no evidence was presented showing that files had been synced to those on the county’s servers.

Assistant Attorney General Annie Jay who is the state’s prosecutor in the case argued that there was exigent circumstances in the county wanting to secure the DropBox account to ensure that files did not get deleted from it. However, in a March 8, 2017 letter to DropBox, the state Department of Justice asked for the company to secure all the files and any recent changes made to the account pending a subpoena and search warrant being issued.

“The state was generally aware of the necessity of getting a search warrant, which was not done in this case in order to gain access to his account,” Russell stated.

Russell noted that the online service archives accounts for a period of time. He noted that while it may take a matter of days to get a warrant, the files would be archived online for a matter of weeks. “There was not an exigency issue,” Russell said, further finding that the account was used for personal use and not connected in any way to a Taylor County device.

He specifically noted that according to Lind’s testimony at a motion hearing, Bowers’ emails were not searched. “We don’t have any evidence presented that the defendant’s emails were connected or synced to the DropBox account,” Russell said.

Russell went on to state “That argument would be persuasive if it was made, but it was not.”

Jay continued her disagreement with the ruling stating that the exigency was to find out who the information had been shared with and to stop it, especially who had access outside of Taylor County.

“The court does not find there was an exigency issue,” Russell said.

A scheduling conference was set for August 26 at 11 a.m. to set the date for the jury trial to be held.