Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Border Agents Can Search Laptops Without Cause, Appeals Court Rules

Go to Wired original
Federal agents at the border do not need any reason to search through travelers' laptops, cell phones or digital cameras for evidence of crimes, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, extending the government's power to look through belongings like suitcases at the border to electronics.

The unanimous three-judge decision reverses a lower court finding that digital devices were "an extension of our own memory" and thus too personal to allow the government to search them without cause. Instead, the earlier ruling said, Customs agents would need some reasonable and articulable suspicion a crime had occurred in order to search a traveler's laptop.

On appeal, the government argued that was too high a standard, infringing upon its right to keep the country safe and enforce laws. Civil rights groups, joined by business traveler groups, weighed in, defending the lower court ruling.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the government, finding that the so-called border exception to the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches applied not just to suitcases and papers, but also to electronics.

The ruling (.pdf) came in a case where customs agents searched the laptop of Michael Arnold who was returning from the Philippines. They found images they believed to be child pornography, seized the laptop and later arrested him. While the lower court ruling excluded from trial the pictures of young boys the government says it found on the hard drive, they now can be used again.


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