Judge upholds search of passengers’ laptops


A blackout landing page is displayed on a laptop computer screen inside the "Anti-Sopa War Room" at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)
December 31, 2013

A federal judge in New York on Tuesday upheld a government policy that permits officers at U.S. borders to inspect and copy the contents of travelers’ laptops and other devices without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman dismissed a lawsuit by a university student and a group of criminal defense lawyers and press photographers challenging regulations adopted by the Department of Homeland Security that allow searches of passengers’ electronic equipment at the nation’s borders, including at airports and on trains.

The plaintiffs, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, allege that the policy violates their rights to privacy and free speech.

Korma, a judge in the Eastern District of New York, said that the policy permits searches with or without suspicion, and cited case law that held that “searches at our borders without probable cause and without a warrant are nonetheless ‘reasonable.’”

He said that “there is about a 10 in a million chance” that a U.S. citizen or foreigner’s laptop will be searched. Two federal appeals courts have held that searches of electronic devices are routine border searches. One appeals court has held that some searches may require reasonable suspicion.

One of the plaintiffs, university student Pascal Abidor, had his laptop inspected and taken by Customs and Border Protection officers while he was on an Amtrak train from Montreal to New York in May 2010. It was returned 11 days later. Abidor could prove no injury from the laptop’s confiscation and in any case, Korman said, the officers had reasonable suspicion to inspect it.

Abidor, an Islamic studies scholar and a dual French-American citizen, had images of rallies by the militant Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah on his laptop.

Catherine Crump, the ACLU attorney who argued the case in July 2011, expressed disappointment at the ruling.

“Suspicionless searches of devices containing vast amounts of personal information cannot meet the standard set by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures,” Crump said in a statement. “Unfortunately, these searches are part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance that collects information on too many innocent people, under lax standards, and without adequate oversight.”

The ACLU is considering an appeal.

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