Feds Say They Can Search Bradley Manning's Friend's Laptop Because They Can

from the leave-us-alone dept

Back in May, we noted that Homeland Security's ICE group had taken David House's laptop and had kept it for 49 days because he's friends with Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking the State Department cables to Wikileaks. House was traveling back to the US from a vacation in Mexico and Homeland Security has long held that it can take your laptops at the border for any reason whatsoever. House (with the help of the ACLU) sued the government over this. Not surprisingly, the Justice Department is defending the actions of ICE, basically using the "we did it because we can, so shut up" argument.
There is no basis for the Court to conclude that searches of laptops or other electronic devices at the border should be subjected to a different standard than that for other closed containers. Nor is there a basis for the Court to conclude that Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights were violated by the routine search and detention of his devices at the border.
This is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, dishonest. There is a tremendous "basis" for a court to conclude that searches of electronic devices differ than searches of a closed container. That's because, as we've discussed at length before, what's in your laptop and what's in a container at the border are entirely different:
  • You mostly store everything on your laptop. So, unlike a suitcase that you're bringing with you, it's the opposite. You might specifically choose what to exclude, but you don't really choose what to include. With a suitcase, you specifically choose what to include.
  • The reason you bring the contents on your laptop over the border is because you're bringing your laptop over the border. If you wanted the content of your laptop to go over the border you'd just send it using the internet. There are no "border guards" on the internet itself, so content flows mostly freely across international boundaries. Thus if anyone wants to get certain content into a country via the internet, they're not doing it by entering that country through border control.
More to the point: the reason why ICE is supposed to be stationed at the border is to stop those who should not be in the country and to prevent items that should not be in the country from getting it. It is abundantly clear that taking House's laptop furthered neither of those goals, but instead it was done solely in an attempt to further an unrelated legal claim by the government (the case against Manning). It seems crazy to me that the courts do not seem to take into consideration the purpose of a border search in determining whether or not they are appropriate. This border search had nothing to do with the border and everything to do with the feds using a questionable opportunity to seize data that it could not otherwise get access to via legal means. If House's laptop were really crucial to the case, then the Justice Department should have gotten a warrant to view it, rather than use this loophole at the border. The fact that they did not get a warrant shows pretty clearly that they knew outside of the border situation, they had no right to look at the contents of House's hard drive.

On a separate note, the reason given for having to keep House's laptop for so long? Because the laptop ran both Linux and Windows and the tech geniuses at Homeland Security had trouble understanding how to deal with that.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, bradley manning, david house, free speech, laptops, privacy, seizures


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  1. icon
    Roy Batty (profile), 1 Aug 2011 @ 7:00pm

    Re: When you bring something across the border, it is pretty much fair game.

    I respect your opinion/assertion. You should realize that you have decided to accept the government's premise with regard to what is fair game. Perhaps the time has come to demand more from law enforcement at all levels. I have many years experience in l.e. and too many l.e.o.'s are pushing the limits of fairness. House didn't have controlled substance. House didn't have dangerous material. House did not have warrants outstanding. These federal agents wanted private information. They could have requested a search warrant. Hey, guess what? They didn't have reasonable suspicion and they didn't have probable cause. We are federal agents so we will just take what we want. It is time to restrict the intrusion under some circumstance. We could write a book here. A U.S. citizen? No contraband? No outstanding warrants? Leave us the hell alone!
    And what about keeping the personal items 19 days beyond policy and saying "we're under-staffed". We, as citizens don't have to accept the behavior. This is like sentencing someone to one year in jail and keeping them 18 months because "there weren't enough guards to open the cell door". So, again, your assertion is reasonable, if we accept the premise that federal agents can invade your privacy for one reason and pretend they are doing it for another.

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