No suspicion needed for laptop searches at borders and airports – US Appeals court

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

San Francisco – A Federal Appeals Court has ruled that US Customs officers do not need reasonable suspicion to search the contents of laptop hard drives and other media.  In a 3-0 decision, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that laptops are just like any other physical property and can be searched at the nation’s borders.  The judges also said airports with immigration checkpoints also serve as border stations.

The case involved 43-year-old Orange County California resident Michael Arnold who was returning from a three week vacation in the Philippines in 2005.  Arnold landed at the Los Angeles International Airport and was randomly selected for secondary screening by US Border and Customs officers.

The officers instructed Arnold to turn on his laptop and then went through his desktop folders.  They saw two folders called “Kodak Memories” and “Kodak Pictures” and found two nude pictures of women in those folders.  Supervisors were called and agents found child pornography in other folders.  Arnold was charged with transporting child pornography and traveling overseas to have sex with a child.

Arnold and his attorney appealed to suppress the evidence.  He argued that reasonable suspicion was needed to start the search because laptops were protected environments much like a home or the human mind.  A lower court agreed and suppressed the evidence, but the Ninth Circuit has now reversed the decision.

The decision written by Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain states that border agents don’t need any suspicion at all to search laptops because they are considered to be physical property like any other luggage going through the border.  The decision can be interpreted to cover the contents of mobile phones and any other digital media.