Laptops fair game for airport customs searches

Customs agents at U.S. airports don’t need any evidence of wrongdoing to search the contents of passengers’ laptop computers, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

Reinstating child pornography evidence against a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said a computer is no different from a suitcase, a car or any other piece of property subject to search at an international border.

Although police need probable cause – specific evidence of criminal activity – to search someone on the street, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no such evidence is necessary for a border search. Courts have also ruled that an international airport is the equivalent of a border.

Border agents would need grounds for suspicion before conducting a body search, but a “piece of property simply does not implicate the same dignity and privacy concerns as highly intrusive searches of the person,” the court said. Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote the 3-0 decision.

Hopefully, when this makes it to the Supreme Court (and I’m sure it ultimately will), they’ll make the right decisions with regards to privacy.

It’s reasonable to ask someone to turn on their laptop to ensure that it’s not a bomb, but what reason could someone possibly have for looking at files stored on the computer without some sort of probable cause?

To me, despite the Ninth Circuit’s decision (which is surprising, since the Ninth Circuit is usually one of the more “liberal” Courts of Appeal), this smacks of a direct violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

For those that aren’t familiar, the Fourth Amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In today’s age of electronics, I’d call a person’s laptop to effectively be “papers, and effects” … even if the defendant in this case is a pervert carrying child porn, the Customs officials should have never looked at the the files on the laptop without probable cause.

And nowhere, in any of the articles that I’ve found thus far, has there been any indication that this was the case. Instead, they’re claiming that “hey, we can open your luggage to make sure you’re not carrying drugs, so that means we can search all of your business and/or personal documents on your laptop at will as well.”

Talk about a slippery slope … once again I think that Blackstone’s Formulation should rule the day. As a reminder, Blackstone’s Formulation states, “it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”