A number of civil liberties groups announced today that they are fighting U.S. Department of Homeland Security policies that allow them to search all electronic devices -- including laptops, cameras, and smart phones -- that cross the border.
Between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, more than 6,500 people -- nearly 3,000 of them U.S. citizens -- were subjected to a search of their electronic devices as they crossed U.S. borders, reported the groups, which include the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
This is an issue for criminal defense lawyers because some of the people who had their equipment searched were criminal defense attorneys, who believe that the searches violate attorney-client privilege.
“The policies allow border agents to detain the devices even after a traveler has been permitted to enter the country so that they can continue their searches. The policies do not place any time limits on how long DHS can keep travelers’ devices, nor do they limit the scope of private information that may be searched, copied or detained,” according to the complaint.
In addition, while these searches are nominally only for border crossings, in practical terms they can cover a much broader area. "Border Patrol agents operating across the nation claim the authority to question Americans about their immigration status anywhere within 100 miles of the border," wrote Udi Ofer, Advocacy Director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a New York Times letter to the editor last week. "They claim that the normal rules of the Constitution do not apply within this region, and that Americans can be subjected to intrusive questions and even detention that would normally violate the Fourth Amendment."
The letter went on to note that two-thirds of the United States population (2007 Census figures) lives within 100 miles of land and coastal borders, and that 97.4 percent of New York State’s population is in this zone.
This is not the first time these border searches have been questioned; a case earlier this year threw out a search that was conducted six months after the border crossing, but allowed a search at the crossing and a day later. Typically, border searches also don't require warrants.
The plaintiffs said they are not seeking monetary damages, but are seeking an order preventing future such searches without a warrant and probable cause, or at least reasonable suspicion, and requiring defendants to return all information unlawfully obtained from plaintiffs and their members and to destroy all copies of it.