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Hartford criminal law attorney for Fourth Amendment rightsPeople in the United States have the expectation that their Constitutional rights will be protected in encounters with law enforcement officials. The Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches, and this typically means that before police officers or other officials can search a person’s home, vehicle, or electronic devices, they must either receive consent from the person, or they must obtain a search warrant that is based on probable cause that the person has committed a crime. While these rights apply to people within the United States, many people do not realize that when traveling internationally, their phones, laptop computers, or other electronic devices may be subject to searches by customs agents, and in many cases, these searches are performed without obtaining warrants or receiving consent from a device’s owner.

Appeals Court Considers Legality of Border Searches

Concerns about the increasing use of warrantless searches by customs agents have been raised by advocates for privacy and civil liberties. In 2017, the Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) conducted more than 30,000 searches of electronic devices at U.S. borders, which was a massive increase from about 8,500 searches in 2015. Current CBP policies allow agents to open a person’s device and search through its contents, and agents can confiscate a device for up to five days without providing a reason for doing so. 

A number of lawsuits have been filed against the Department of Homeland Security by people who have been subject to these types of searches. In one case that is currently being heard by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, a group of 11 people are challenging the CBP’s policies, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated by border searches. The plaintiffs are all either U.S. Citizens or lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders), and customs officers conducted searches of their devices without obtaining warrants or accusing them of any crimes. In some cases, devices were confiscated and kept for multiple weeks or months.

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East Hartford criminal defense lawyer for illegal searchesMany of the laws in the United States were written hundreds of years ago, when the most advanced forms of technology available were bifocal eyeglasses and steamboats. In today’s world, where everything is at your fingertips in the form of a handheld device, the application of these laws can become tricky. In recent years, people have argued that their Fourth Amendment rights have been overstepped at U.S. border checkpoints. Millions of people travel in and out of the United States on a daily basis, and they may be subject to electronic device searches, whether they are U.S. citizens or not. The question is, are these searches legal?

Civil Liberties Advocates Argue for More Privacy

In recent years, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents have been searching more and more electronic devices at U.S. borders. In 2015, there were an estimated 8,500 searches conducted on electronic devices at the border. In 2018, there were 33,000 searches conducted, which is a three-fold increase. Many civil liberties advocates, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have argued that these searches are often done for no apparent reason and violate the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Privacy Advocates

In 2017, a lawsuit was filed against CBP by 11 people (10 of whom are U.S. citizens and one who is a lawful permanent resident) alleging that their electronic devices were taken by CBP, and their personal data was searched for no apparent reason. Recently, a federal judge in Boston ruled that CBP agents cannot take travelers’ electronic devices and conduct suspicionless searches. The U.S. has long asserted that it does not need to issue warrants to search devices at the border, but this judge has concluded that CBP agents must have reasonable suspicion and be able to point to specific facts to justify the search before a search is conducted.

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