Federal Court Declares That Suspicionless Searches of Electronic Devices at Airports are Unconstitutional

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A federal court in Boston ruled earlier this week that arbitrary searches of electronic devices at airports are unconstitutional, in a rare ruling that bolsters privacy rights and the 4th Amendment.

The lawsuit, Alasaad v. McAleenan, was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Massachusetts. They were representing 11 individuals who believed their rights were violated when their laptops and smartphones were capriciously searched while they were entering the U.S.

“This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for millions of international travelers who enter the United States every year,” said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

“By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicionless fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel,” Bhandari added.

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“This is a great day for travelers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” said Sophia Cope, EFF Senior Staff Attorney.

Customs and Border Control (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had previously declared their authority to conduct these searches without a warrant or even any suspicion, but this ruling will likely put that practice to an end. The CBP conducted 33,000 of these searches in 2018 alone.

“International travelers returning to the United States have reported numerous cases of abusive searches in recent months,” the EFF said in a press release.

The EFF points to the case of Zainab Merchant, one of their plaintiffs, who had privileged attorney-client communications breached by a federal official during the illegal search. Another Harvard freshman had his cell phone and laptop searched and then was reprimanded for posting wrongthink about the U.S. government by an immigration officer, and was subsequently denied entrance into the country.

“[T]he Court declares that the CBP and ICE policies for “basic” and “advanced” searches, as presently defined, violate the Fourth Amendment to the extent that the policies do not require reasonable suspicion that the devices contain contraband for both such classes of non-cursory searches and/or seizure of electronic devices; and that the non-cursory searches and/or seizures of Plaintiffs’ electronic devices, without such reasonable suspicion, violated the Fourth Amendment,” the ruling stated.

The federal courts, who often are among the worst offenders in stomping out U.S. constitutional liberty, actually got this one right.

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