Border laptop searches unconstitutional

December 6, 2010 — by Megan Benzing and Grishma Athavale

When 26-year-old Pascal Abidor, a dual U.S. and French citizen, boarded a train from Canada to New York in late May, he did not expect Custom and Border Patrol (CBP) officers to confiscate his laptop for 11 days. After he showed an Amtrak official his passport, Abidor was ordered to move to a cafe, where officials questioned him about his Hamas and Hezbollah rally pictures and forced him to unlock his computer.

Even after explaining that these photos pertained to his doctoral degree in the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon, Abidor was handcuffed and then jailed for three hours while the authorities looked through his computer. Although he was eventually released, authorities still kept his computer for an 11 additional days. With the increased number of home-grown terrorists, the U.S has tightened its security measures at the airports near its borders.

Federal agents are given the right to approach any traveler and search belongings, including laptops and cell phones, without warrant. Technically, these officers do not even need a probable cause to confiscate and roam your computer at their own will.

According a New York Times editorial, in a disappointing ruling in 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco said that agents at a border need not meet even the low threshold of reasonable suspicion to justify a warrant-less laptop search.

If this is not an invasion of privacy, then what is? Most people store their entire lives on their computer. Anyone looking through it could come across intimate e-mails or photos, business plans and most viewed Web sites.

The Fourth Amendment says that people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, effects, and against unreasonable searches and seizures. It also states that no warrants can be issued, but upon probable cause.

Our persons, houses, papers, and effects should be safe against unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that our laptops should be safe from officers at our country’s borders. If the police want to search it, they should be required ask for consent.

Even if the owner denies the policeman access to his belongings, the officers should have reasonable cause to search it, which, if national security demands, trumps consent. In that case, and in any case, there must be a reason behind the warrant.

According to the New York Times, the challenge “is to strike a balance that grants sufficient leeway to protect the nation’s borders without allowing the intimate details of people’s lives and work to be searched, seized and copied on a whim.”

By allowing authorities to search laptops at will, the Supreme Court has diminished the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals and has set a dangerous precedent for future rulings. In order for the United States to remain a nation in which freedom and protection remain strong, the government must curb its tendency to infringe upon its citizens’ rights.