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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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search, East Hartford criminal defense attorneyThe Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The operative word in that phrase, however, is “unreasonable.” Over the last 240 years, courts at every level have attempted to define what constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure in a variety of situations. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court was presented with two conflicting interpretations of the Fourth Amendment—one as it applies to a person’s home and the other as it applies to a person’s vehicle.

Collins v. Virginia

The case originated in Albemarle County, Virginia in June 2013 where a rider on a distinctive orange and black motorcycle fled and eluded police at high rates of speed twice in the period of several weeks. The police used found the person they believed to be in possession of the motorcycle and that the motorcycle was likely to have been stolen. Using social media, the police were able to link the suspected owner/rider to an orange and black motorcycle. Social media also allowed police to find an address for the suspect.

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mobile phone, tracking, Connecticut Criminal Defense AttorneyMost Americans understand the general protections offered by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Its provisions are meant to guarantee the security of people, their homes, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Only a warrant, based on probable cause, is to give the government the power to override a person’s right to privacy.

The digital age, however, continues to offer new and increasingly ambiguous challenges to the application of law enforcement as it pertains to the Fourth Amendment. The latest example, involving the use of mobile phone records without a warrant, is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a case that is likely to set a precedent for many future decisions.

United States v. Quartavious Davis

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