A U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that, when it comes to searching electronics of people traveling into the country, border agents must have reasonable suspicion to do so. The decision came after the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2017 against the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The suit was filed on behalf of 11 travelers (10 U.S. citizens and 1 lawful permanent resident) whose electronic devices were searched by border agents. They alleged that the agents’ actions violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Protection From Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
The Fourth Amendment guarantees people the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of their property and person. Typically, when law enforcement officers want to look through a person’s belongings, they need a reason and a warrant to do so. Otherwise, their actions could be considered unlawful.
However, there are exceptions for the need for a warrant before searching a person’s property. One of which concerns searches done by border agents. The rationale behind this is that it protects the country as a whole by thoroughly inspecting who or what enters it.
The defendant’s in the 2017 lawsuit argued that the agents’ search of the plaintiffs’ electronic devices was protected under the Fourth Amendment because of the exception, and no warrant was needed.
The plaintiffs stated that the agents had access to highly personal data, such as work information, photographs, and confidential emails. They asserted that the search violated their right to privacy.
Was the Border Agents’ Search Legal?
In the ruling, U.S. District Judge J. Casper said that the Fourth Amendment exception does not apply to searches of electronic devices. Laptops, cell phones, tablets, and other items are different from non-digital belongings because they can store large amounts of personal and sensitive information, as was the case with the 11 travelers who sued the government.
Although the expectation of privacy is reduced when someone is traveling into the country, that does not mean border agents can freely search a person’s electronics. The ruling didn’t state that agents need warrants to examine the contents of an electronic device, only that they must have reasonable suspicion for doing so. That means the agent must believe the person is intending to engage in unlawful behavior and a search is warranted to prevent the action from being carried out.
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