Court upholds laptop searches at border

A federal court has tossed out a lawsuit trying to prevent the government from searching laptops, cellphones and other devices at U.S. border checkpoints.

The circuit judge’s decision to uphold the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy on Tuesday was a blow to civil liberties groups that argued the practice violated the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

ADVERTISEMENT
According to government documents, officials at the border search and copy the contents of thousands of people’s devices each year. Border agents are allowed to look into the devices and detain them for a short period of time without a reasonable suspicion that the traveler has committed a crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a lawsuit challenging the DHS policy in 2010, on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association and Pascal Abidor, a French-American man whose laptop was confiscated at the Canadian border.

But in his opinion on Tuesday, Judge Edward Korman wrote that the groups did not have standing to dispute the DHS searches because “there is not a substantial risk that their electronic devices will be subject to a search or seizure without reasonable suspicion.”

He added that polices for border agents “are sensitive to the privacy and confidentiality issues posed by border searches of electronic devices. They constitute efforts to cabin the nature and extent of such searches, and they contain significant precautionary measures to be taken with respect to the handling of privileged and other sensitive materials” that may be contained.

Abidor claimed that he saw evidence that his personal files had been searched while border officials held his laptop for 11 days.

But Korman wrote that border agents did indeed have “reasonable suspicion” to check the laptop, since Abidor had recently returned from Lebanon and was carrying pictures of Hezbollah and Hamas rallies.

The ACLU said it was considering an appeal of the decision.

"We're disappointed in today's decision, which allows the government to conduct intrusive searches of Americans' laptops and other electronics at the border without any suspicion that those devices contain evidence of wrongdoing," said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the organization, in a statement.

“Unfortunately, these searches are part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance that collects information on too many innocent people, under lax standards, and without adequate oversight."