Homeland Security: Not Searching Your Laptop Doesn't Benefit Your Civil Liberties, So We Can Do It

from the interesting-4th-amendment-interpretation dept

We've written many times over the years concerning the legality of Homeland Security searching your laptop at the border without reasonable suspicion. Many courts have held that, effectively, the 4th Amendment does not apply at the border, so they don't need a warrant to search your laptop. However, they've been continually pushing this ability further and further. For example, they got a court to say that this applies not just while you're at the border -- they can take your laptop off site to search it and hang onto it for a while. However, that time, they at least needed to have a "reasonable suspicion." DHS has taken a pretty firm stand that it must be able to keep doing this. While the ACLU and the EFF and others keep challenging these rules, to date the only possible crack was in a case where there's evidence that the search was politically motivated.

Late last week, a bizarre finding popped up. Back in 2009, when DHS announced its new rules for laptop searches at the border, it also promised that it would do its own "Civil Liberties Impact Assessment" within 120 days. Three years later, Homeland Security's Orwellian "Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties" has finally released a two page executive summary of the findings, which more or less says "there are no civil liberties issues" with laptop searches. What else would you expect them to say? The ACLU has filed a FOIA request for the full report, but let's just focus on the most horrifying statement in the executive summary:
We conclude that CBP's and ICE's current border search policies comply with the Fourth Amendment. We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits.
That statement is so bizarre I read it half a dozen times before I was sure it really said what it appears to say. It appears to be a somewhat stunning redefinition of how one reviews whether or not something violates the 4th Amendment. Rather than recognizing the rather explicit restrictions under the 4th Amendment, they merely say that it is okay to do these searches because not doing them would not have civil rights/civil liberties "benefits." That is incredible. The double negative logic there is truly amazing. In other words, we can violate the Constitution, so long as not doing so would not have civil liberties benefits. Wow.

Meanwhile, since Homeland Security has similarly argued (as part of these cases) that its Constitution Free zone for searches applies to any place 100 miles from the United States border, some are pointing out that this means that every electronic device -- computers, cell phones, you name it -- in Detroit can be searched with absolutely no reasonable suspicion under DHS's interpretation (since Detroit is less than 100 miles from Canada). But don't worry, since there is little civil liberties or civil rights benefits to not searching your stuff, DHS says it's okay.

Oh, and in case you're wondering on what basis DHS makes this assessment, it appears to be based on their own directives rather than on any "laws."

So, if you're playing along at home, DHS has decided, based on its own review of its own directives, that it can search any electronic device within 100 miles of the border without requiring a warrant, probable cause, reasonable suspicion or anything like that -- because actually respecting the Constitution "would be operationally harmful" and wouldn't really create any "civil rights/civil liberties benefits" for you.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, border searches, civil liberties, civil rights, homeland security, privacy


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  1. icon
    Internet Zen Master (profile), 11 Feb 2013 @ 12:23pm

    Okay, this is downright disturbing...

    I knew that the DHS and their unique interpretations of the Constitution were slowly encroaching on our rights, but 100 miles in from the border? Wow. Just...... Wow.

    Now, from an optimistic POV, the chances that the DHS would actually try and use their "all ur electronics belong 2 us" legalese logic are probably 0.0000000001% to zero. However, the cynic in me says that this new option will be close to the top five options Homeland Security is willing to use at the drop of a hat.

    As the Zen Master says, "We'll see."

    Also, having DHS's internal office doing the "Civil Liberties Impact Assessment"? The phrase "fox guarding the henhouse" fits this scenario to the letter.

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