June 12, 2010
A federal judge has ruled that border agents cannot seize a traveler’s laptop, keep it locked up for months, and examine it for contraband files without a warrant half a year later.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in the Northern District of California rejected the Obama administration’s argument that no warrant was necessary to look through the electronic files of an American citizen who was returning home from a trip to South Korea.
“The court concludes that June search required a warrant,” White ruled on June 2, referring to a search of Andrew Hanson’s computer that took place a year ago. Hanson arrived San Francisco International Airport in January 2009.
The Justice Department invoked a novel argument–which White dubbed “unpersuasive”–claiming that while Hanson was able to enter the country, his laptop remained in a kind of legal limbo where the Bill of Rights did not apply. (The Fourth Amendment generally requires a warrant for searches.)
“Until merchandise has cleared customs, it may not enter the United States,” assistant U.S. attorney Owen Martikan argued. “The laptop never cleared customs and was maintained in government custody until it was searched…”