by Mike Masnick
Techdirt. / 2017-03-22 11:28
For many years, we’ve written about the craziness of the so-called "border search exception" to the 4th Amendment, in which the US government has insisted that the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply at the border, and thus it’s allowed to search people at the border. The initial reasoning was — more or less — that at the border, you’re not yet in the country, and thus the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply yet. But that’s expanded over time — especially in the digital age. Perhaps, back when people just had clothes/books/whatever in their luggage, you could understand the rationale for allowing a search, but today, when people carry laptops and handheld electronic devices that basically store their whole lives, the situation is a lot scarier. Unfortunately, (with just a few small exceptions) the courts have simply taken the historical ability to search luggage at the border and expanded it to cover electronic devices. Then, things got even more ridiculous, when Homeland Security decided that anywhere that’s within 100 miles of the border could be "close enough" to count as a "border search," making the "border search exception" apply. That’s… messed up.
There’s now a case in the 4th Circuit that shows how this is expanding even further, and on Monday we joined with the Cause of Action Institute and the Committee for Justice to file an amicus brief in the case of Hamza Kolsuz (the ACLU has also filed an amicus brief). Kolsuz had his phone searched under a "border search exception" — but here’s the thing: He was in the process of leaving the country, not entering it. A regular bag search turned up handgun parts in his checked luggage, for which he was arrested. After that, his iPhone was seized and searched without a warrant. Remember, just a few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that you need a warrant to search a mobile phone in the Riley case. But here there was none.
Law enforcement tried to get around this by claiming that since Kolsuz was at the airport, the search of his phone should count as a border search exception. But that’s crazy. Unfortunately, the district court accepted this reasoning — and now the case is on appeal. We signed onto this amicus brief for a variety of reasons, but a big one is that, as journalists, protecting sources and documents is important. We shouldn’t be subject to warrantless searches of our work every time we just happen to be in an airport. As the brief notes:
The District Court erred in denying Mr. Kolsuz’s Motion to Suppress and this Court should reverse and remand for a new trial. First, while the border search doctrine constitutes a narrow exception to the otherwise unequivocal Fourth Amendment requirement that the government obtain a warrant to conduct a search, the governmental interests that justify this narrow border search exception were not in play when the Defendant’s smartphone was searched incident to his arrest, and this exception therefore cannot be used to justify the search here. The fact that Mr. Kolsuz was arrested and his phone seized at an airport–the equivalent of a border–does not change this case from one that fits squarely within Riley v. California… to one that is suddenly part of a narrow exception of cases justified by the sovereign’s customs enforcement rules.
The Court should see this search for what it was: a month-long, detailed, forensic search to gather evidence against Mr. Kolsuz for use in a trial on the very charges for which he was arrested. Since the search here was not actually a border search, the border search exception cannot save it.
Second, the United States essentially seeks a mechanical application of a Fourth Amendment exception even where the interests that justify the exception were not implicated in this case. The dangers of such a mechanical application are readily apparent. People traveling into and out of the United States routinely cross with smartphones or computers that contain the equivalent of "every piece of mail… every picture… [and] every book" a person has…. These individuals include journalists, lawyers, and business travelers with confidential information typically safeguarded under American jurisprudence. Nevertheless, customs agents purport to have unfettered access to the contents of electronic devices carried by such individuals, without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause of a crime, simply by the fact that the individual wishes to leave or enter the United States. This is not the application of the border search exception that the Supreme Court had in mind when it outlined its narrow purview.
Of course, many of us still find the very idea of a "border search exception" to be nonsensical in the first place. But if it’s there, the idea that it could be abused in this manner is even more problematic and concerning. Hopefully the 4th Circuit corrects this injustice. We’re proud to sign onto this brief, and hope the court listens.