Court Limits Border Agents' Ability To Search Personal Computers

By Adrian Florido
March 11, 2013

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. But there is an exception for the border agents trying to detect illegal material before it enters the country.

On Friday, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that exception only goes so far when it comes to searching people’s laptops and other electronic devices.

The case involved a man who tried to cross the border into Arizona. Because he was traveling with cameras and had a prior child sex abuse conviction, agents searched his laptop computer, and finding material that was password-protected, they seized it. A deep forensic examination of the computer uncovered images of the man abusing a young girl.

But the man challenged the forensic analysis, saying it went further than what the Fourth Amendment allows, even with the exception courts have allowed for border agents.

The appeals court ruled that in the man’s particular case, the agents acted appropriately, because they did have reasonable suspicion of a crime. But the court also ruled that reasonable suspicion is always required before border agents perform a deep forensic analysis on a computer.

Judge M. Margaret McKeown, writing for the majority, said that in the digital age, computers contain the most intimate details of people’s lives, including financial and medical records and private emails.

“A person’s digital life ought not be hijacked simply by crossing a border,” she wrote.

But several judges dissented, saying the ruling would severely hinder the government’s ability to protect United States borders.