Judge: Border Patrol Can Confiscate Laptops, Cell Phones Without Reasonable Suspicion

U.S Border Patrol can set up checkpoints anywhere within 100 miles of the country’s actual border. And at these checkpoints, agents will stop you, interrogate you, ask you if you’re a U.S. citizen, possibly search your car and your belongings. Even if they don’t suspect you of wrongdoing, they can seize your phone, your laptop or whatever electronic device you have with you.

Judge Edward Korman recently threw out a case where an Islamic Studies graduate student named Pascal Abidor sued the CBP for detaining and questioning him for hours while his laptop was held for 11 hours. He was on an Amtrak train crossing the border from Canada to New York when Border Patrol arrested him. AllGov reported:

Korman threw out the case on two grounds:that seizures of personal electronic devices don’t occur often enough to be a concern; and that the government doesn’t need to have reasonable suspicion when it comes to taking away possessions at border checkpoints.

Korman continued in his 32-page opinion:

“Statistics compiled and published by the CBP in 2006 indicate that ‘[o]n a typical day, more than 1.1 million passengers and pedestrians . . . are processed at the nation’s borders.’ … Using that figure, fewer than one in a million electronic devices were detained by the CBP. Stated another way, there is less than a one in a million chance that a computer carried by an inbound international traveler will be detained. Even in the case of a quick look and search of a computer, in which CBP officers simply have a traveler boot the laptop up, and look at what is inside, … as opposed to a more comprehensive forensic search that would presumably occur if a computer were detained, the number of U.S. citizens subject to such a search comes to approximately 4.9 per day, or less than a five in a million chance that their computer will be subject to any kind of search. Even if both U.S. citizens and aliens are counted, there is about a 10 in a million chance that such a search will take place. … (rejecting as ‘far-fetched’ the suggestion that ‘any person carrying a laptop computer . . . on an international flight would be subject to a search of the files on the computer hard drive[,]’ because ‘[c]ustoms agents have neither the time nor the resources to search the contents of every computer’).”

So, since it doesn’t happen all that often, and since these confiscations might only happen within that 100-mile thick “border,” people have no right to complain about being detained or having their electronic devices taken. The Judge argued that this wasn’t a Constitutional violation, because the 4th Amendment only prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. These detainments, searches and seizures aren’t unreasonable.