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Government violated MLB players' rights in seizing drug test records, court says

September 13, 2010 |  4:47 pm

Federal agents illegally seized confidential drug-testing records for hundreds of professional athletes while raiding a Bay Area lab in search of evidence of illegal steroid sales, an appeals court ruled Monday.

The full 11-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the orders from three lower-court judges that the test records be returned to the Major League Baseball Players Assn. and that all subpoenas issued as a result of the illegally obtained test results be quashed.

The case stemmed from a government investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, a private lab known as BALCO, which agents suspected of providing banned substances to ball players, including former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

When agents raided the lab with a search warrant for the drug test results of 10 named players, they confiscated computer records for hundreds of other professional athletes, including results indicating illegal steroid use by more than 100 Major League ball players.

Names of ball players who allegedly tested positive for banned substances during a 2003 screening included Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, according to information leaked to the media in the aftermath of the raid.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had upheld the district court judges' rulings more than a year ago, and the full court agreed to reconsider the case after the government appealed. 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 the court-authorized searches. Three of the 11 judges issued dissenting opinions on search-and-seizure issues.

Elliot Peters, the San Francisco attorney who represented the ball players, 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, after earlier rulings that the test results were illegally confiscated, 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.

-- Carol J. Williams

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