Border Searches Used as Backdoor to Fourth Amendment Protections

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The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution states: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…but upon probable cause…. A long held exception to this amendment has been at the border of the United States, the rationale being that the sovereign power has a right to examine all goods entering the country. According to a report in The New York Times, this border exception is often used to illegally search devices such as laptops and cellphones.

David House was working as a fundraiser for the legal defense of Chelsea Manning, neé Bradley Manning, recently sentenced to 35 years for leaking classified material to Wikileaks. House, however, had no part of that but was legally involved with the organization. He had been questioned about his association with Manning, but in November 2010 when returning from Mexico, House’s computer, phone, camera, and thumb drive were seized and then examined for over 7 months.

House, with the help of the ACLU, filed a lawsuit against the DHS and the government settled the case in May 2013. House’s defense team caught a lucky break from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals of all places. 

In March of 2013, the 9th Circuit Court ruled on a lawsuit from Howard Cotterman was convicted of possession of child pornography found during a border search of his laptop. The court ruled that the prescience of the Founding Fathers inclusion of “papers” in the 4th Amendment applies to something like a laptop which contains documents, diaries, and pictures. Cotterman’s conviction was not overturned, because he was already a sex offender and thus agents had a “reasonable” suspicion to search his computer. House, however, broke no laws and the government was forced to settle.