Traveling with electronic devices became a hot topic in recent years when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) implemented a policy that allowed border agents to search electronic devices of international travelers entering the United States. This policy allowed CBP to conduct a basic or advance search of the device. The border agents could conduct a basic search or an advance search of the device where they would either simply look at the content of the device or connect the traveler’s device to their system to review or copy content. Basic searches were routinely conducted and did not require the agent to have any suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the traveler. Advance searches required a “reasonable suspicion of activity in violation of the laws enforced or administered by CBP” or a “national security concern.” This policy applied to all travelers including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.
In the legal battle that has been taking place, CPB took the position that their searches were “a crucial tool for detecting evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters” and “can also reveal information about financial and commercial crimes.”
A federal Court in Massachusetts has now ruled that CPB and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot search personal cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices without a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. The Fourth amendment protects against unlawful searches or seizures and requires law enforcement officials have a warrant before they can conduct a search of a person’s property. Although there is an exception for travelers at the border with regard to routine searches, the Court stated that searches of electronic devices did not fit the exception and that the Fourth Amendment applied.
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