Federal Court Affirms Constitutional Protection Against Suspicionless Searches of Devices at US Border

Posted on November 23, 2019

According to a press release by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published earlier this month, a federal district court in Boston ruled that law enforcement at the US border cannot search individual travelers’ devices in the absence of suspicion. This decision bars TSA agents, Customs and Border Protection, ICE, and any other federal law enforcement body operating at the border from circumventing constitutional protections against unreasonable search by compelling travelers to unlock their mobile devices for review.

The challenge to this former practice emerged from a suit filed jointly by the EFF (with whom CCDBR is partnered), the ACLU, and the ACLU of Massachusetts defending 11 individuals targeted by such groundless and invasive searches.

The court’s ruling marks a landmark victory for protections at the US border, which has traditionally enjoyed sweeping exemptions from normal constitutional protections which Americans enjoy. And as Cory Doctorow points out, this win is extremely timely considering that instances of digital device searches at the border have spiked under the Trump administration.

This sea change in constitutional protections at the border is significant for another reason as well: The area in which the “border search exception” is permissible is 100 miles wide and encompasses roughly two-thirds of the US population (including the City of Chicago). By demanding particularized suspicion for compelling the disclosure of a device’s contents, a court at the federal level has drawn a line in the sand which safeguards a modicum of civil liberties for a large majority of Americans.

You can read the full press release from the EFF here.