11th Circuit Says No Reasonable Suspicion Needed For Invasive Device Searches At The Border
from the welcome-back-to-the-US,-please-hand-over-your-everything dept
A recent Fourth Circuit Appeals Court decision found government agents at US borders need something more than the nothing currently required to perform searches of electronic devices. Cursory searches without suspicion are still fine in the Constitution-free zone, but forensic searches of cellphones need, at minimum, reasonable suspicion.
This decision aligned the Fourth with the Ninth Circuit, where it was also determined forensic device searches require some sort of suspicion, even if performed at the border. A case out of Massachusetts (First Circuit) challenging a suspicionless device search has been allowed to move forward, possibly bringing another circuit into the mix and deepening the split.
The Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court, however, has sided with the government and against citizens’ privacy. It has upheld the lower court’s determination that border device searches require no reasonable suspicion, no matter what the Supreme Court said in its Riley decision, which created a warrant requirement for phone searches. (via Jake Laperruque, Brad Heath)
Karl Touset had his devices searched at the Atlanta airport after returning from an overseas trip. This followed some investigatory work by the government which suggested Touset might be involved in child pornography. The detainment and search was also prompted by money transfer service Xoom, which reported several people for making “frequent low money transfers” to people in “source countries” for child porn.
Touset was met by CBP agents on arrival. Manual searches of his two phones revealed nothing, but CBP seized Touset’s laptops and external hard drives. Those were forensically searched and child porn was discovered. These warrantless searches were challenged by Touset, but the Eleventh Circuit [PDF] immediately shuts down this line of reasoning by citing the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has never required reasonable suspicion for a search of property at the border, however non-routine and intrusive, and neither have we.
Arguing that devices that hold thousands of pieces of personal info doesn’t help.
Nor has it “been willing to distinguish . . . between different types of property.”
Neither does pointing out the invasiveness of a forensic search, which can recover long-deleted files or other electronic detritus.
And it rejected a judicial attempt to distinguish between “routine” and “nonroutine” searches and to craft “[c]omplex balancing tests to determine what [constitutes] a ‘routine’ search of a vehicle, as opposed to a more ‘intrusive’ search of a person.” We have been similarly unwilling to distinguish between different kinds of property.
Going from there, the Appeals Court says the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply at the border — no matter what the Supreme Court justices may have said about the ubiquity of devices capable of storing people’s “entire lives.”
We see no reason why the Fourth Amendment would require suspicion for a forensic search of an electronic device when it imposes no such requirement for a search of other personal property. Just as the United States is entitled to search a fuel tank for drugs, see Flores-Montano, 541 U.S. at 155, it is entitled to search a flash drive for child pornography. And it does not make sense to say that electronic devices should receive special treatment because so many people now own them or because they can store vast quantities of records or effects.
The Appeals Court acknowledges its split with the Fourth and Ninth Circuits before moving on to point to its own precedent as being the correct conclusion.
We are unpersuaded. Although the Supreme Court stressed in Riley that the search of a cell phone risks a significant intrusion on privacy, our decision in Vergara made clear that Riley, which involved the search-incident-to-arrest exception, does not apply to searches at the border. 884 F.3d at 1312 (“[T]he Supreme Court expressly limited its holding to the search-incident-to-arrest exception.”). And our precedent considers only the “personal indignity” of a search, not its extensiveness. Vega-Barvo, 729 F.2d at 1346. Again, we fail to see how the personal nature of data stored on electronic devices could trigger this kind of indignity when our precedent establishes that a suspicionless search of a home at the border does not.
And it appears the Eleventh Circuit has reached this conclusion simply because it has strong feelings about the contraband discovered.
Indeed, if we were to require reasonable suspicion for searches of electronic devices, we would create special protection for the property most often used to store and disseminate child pornography.
This ignores the fact that electronic devices are most often used to store and disseminate almost everything — most of it legal. This is the court refusing to even slightly raise the bar for invasive forensic searches just because it doesn’t like this particular appellant. This decision allows the government to root around in everyone’s personal papers without a warrant just because some people may carry illicit goods across the border. This isn’t a rational reason for refusing to even consider raising the bar to reasonable suspicion (which the agents had in this case). This feels more like an emotional decision, rather than one neutrally-applied, and it does nothing to protect millions of innocent travelers from their government.