Last spring, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security that challenged the authority of Customs and Border Protection officers to search returning travelers’ electronic devices without a warrant. Now the ACLU has taken that fight a big step further by filing a lawsuit against DHS.
“The number of electronic device searches at the border began increasing in 2016 and has grown even more under the Trump administration,” the ACLU noted. It said that CBP has conducted 15,000 electronic device searches in the first six months of fiscal 2017, compared with just 8,503 searches in the full fiscal year 2015. In 2016 there were more than 19,000 searches.
Other plaintiffs in the suit include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and 11 individuals who were subjected to warrantless phone or laptop searches when they came back into the U.S. Some of the plaintiffs had their devices confiscated by border agents and held for “weeks or months,” the ACLU said in announcing the lawsuit.
According to the ACLU, an engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California “was detained at the Houston airport on the way home from vacation in Chile. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officer demanded that he reveal the password for his phone. The officer returned the phone a half-hour later, saying that it had been searched using ‘algorithms.'”
The suit, called Alasaad vs. Duke, was filed in a federal court in Massachusetts. “It seeks to establish that the government must have a warrant based on probable cause to suspect a violation of immigration or customs laws before conducting such searches,” the ACLU said.
The organization noted that the individual plaintiffs come from all walks of life – a business owner, a military veteran, journalists, students, an engineer at NASA and so on.
“Several are Muslims or people of color,” ACLU noted. “All were reentering the country from business or personal travel when border officers searched their devices. They were not subsequently accused of any wrongdoing.”
ACLU said that in one case, an independent filmmaker who was returning from Canada resisted the CBP agent’s demand to turn over his phone. “Officers then physically restrained him, with one choking him and another holding his legs, and took his phone from his pocket,” the ACLU said.
The organization has set up a web page with details on each of the plaintiffs’ experiences.
Sophia Cope, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that today’s travelers “store their whole lives, including extremely sensitive personal and business matters, on their phones, tablets, and laptops, and it’s reasonable for them to carry these with them when they travel. It’s high time that the courts require the government to stop treating the border as a place where they can end-run the Constitution,”
You can read the full ACLU legal filing here.
The ACLU has plenty of funding to support its legal action. Last January, after the Trump administration sought to ban U.S. entry to persons from several Muslim-majority countries, the organization took in $24 million in a single weekend from hundreds of thousands of donors. That was six times as much as it usually collects in a full year.
Readers: Has your device been searched by CBP? Do you think CBP officers should need reasonable cause to search it?