Published: Thu, September 14, 2017
World | By Paul Elliott

Trump administration sued over phone searches at U.S. border

Trump administration sued over phone searches at U.S. border

"The number of border searches of electronic devices by CBP and ICE has been growing rapidly".

The issue of border searches has even bubbled up to Congress with the proposed Protecting Data at the Border Act, which would require border agents to get a warrant signed by a judge before going through digital devices and would introduce a four-hour time limit for detaining Americans at the border. The administration argues the steps are needed to improve security and stop terrorism, but rights groups say there are limits.

As such, the case has been careful to include not only multiple plaintiffs but also a broad range of individuals: journalists, artists, engineers, students, a business owner and a military vet.

Panelists at the ABA Annual Meeting in August said case law is murky on whether border officials can do more than a cursory search without probable cause, but lawyers may want to use burner phones and laptops without client data when traveling outside the country to avoid disclosure.

Border searches of electronic devices typically occur in a special screening area, an environment that is inherently coercive, according to the lawsuit. "Our electronic devices contain massive amounts of information that can paint a detailed picture of our personal lives, including emails, texts, contact lists, photos, work documents, and medical or financial records".

According to ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari, the Fourth Amendment requires the government to have a search warrant before it can review the content of smartphones and laptops at the border, and the failure to do so is an open violation of the Constitution.

The suit says that the number of such searches - conducted by Customs and Border Protection agents, sometimes with the assistance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement - have grown sharply in recent years and is on track to reach roughly 30,000 in the current fiscal year.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman, David Lapan, declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing department policy against discussing pending litigation. Most are US citizens, but one is a Haitian man who is a legal permanent USA resident. All were reentering the USA following business or personal travel.

One plaintiff, independent filmmaker Akram Shibly, declined to give his phone to Customs and Border Protection agents while he was returning to the USA after a social outing in the Toronto area in January, the rights groups said. Officers also confiscated and kept the devices of several plaintiffs for weeks or months - DHS has held one plaintiff's device since January.

"I believe in the constitution of the land", Allababidi said.

ACLU suit challenges warrantless searches...

"Because government scrutiny of electronic devices is an unprecedented invasion of personal privacy and a threat to freedom of speech and association, searches of such devices absent a warrant supported by probable cause and without particularly describing the information to be searched are unconstitutional".

"People now store their whole lives, including extremely sensitive personal and business matters, on their phones, tablets and laptops, and it's reasonable for them to carry these with them when they travel", said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope in a statement.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in MA, argues that the seizures violate the First and Fourth Amendments.

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