March 11, 2013
Border agents can’t conduct forensic searches of electronic devices like laptop computers, cell phones and camera memory sticks without a reasonable idea that criminal activity has occurred, said a federal appeals court on March 8.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,struck down  an earlier district court’s ruling in the case of Howard Cotterman on March 8, not excluding searches of electronic gear, but raising the standard for initiating them.
The case has a long history with sordid details, beginning in April, 2007, when Cotterman and his wife returned from a vacation in Mexico, arriving at the Lukeville, AZ, Port of Entry. When a border agent ran Howard’s name through the Treasury Enforcement Communication System (“TECS”) it indicated Howard was a sex offender convicted in 1992 on child molestation charges. The database also indicated he could also be involved in child sex tourism.
Howard and his wife were sent to secondary inspection by border agents, leaving their car and their possessions. Because of the TEC Alert, prior child-related conviction, frequent travels, crossing from a country known for sex tourism, a collection of electronic equipment, plus guiding parameters of an anti-child sex trafficking program, the agents believed the couple were involved in “some type of child pornography.” They took two laptop computers and three digital cameras from the car for examination.