Article Image

IPFS News Link • Privacy Rights

Federal Appeals Court in Virginia Rules Feds Cannot Search Electronic Devices Without Warrant

• DC Closthesline

Another federal court has ruled that U.S. border agents cannot search the cell phones and electronic devices of travelers without individualized suspicion.

On Wednesday a federal appeals court sided with the Fourth Amendment by ruling that U.S. border officials must have individualized suspicion of wrongdoing before attempting to search the cell phones and electronic devices of travelers. The decision is the latest in a series of court rulings which recognize that the rules which govern invasive searches of digital devices and data must be updated.

The case, United States v. Kolsuz, involves border patrol agents stopping a traveler as he prepared to board an international flight at Dulles Airport. The agents found parts of a firearm in his checked luggage and believed he did not have the proper licenses to export the parts. The agents seized his phone and searched it at the airport before sending it to another facility where a more thorough "forensic" search of all the data was conducted. The more invasive search gave the agents access to the man's personal contact lists, emails, messenger conversations, photographs, videos, calendar, web browsing history, call logs, and GPS coordinates of everywhere he has traveled. All of this was done without a court-approved search warrant.

The American Civil Liberties Union defended the man in court, challenging the forensic search as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The ACLU filed a "friend-of-the-court" brief and made oral arguments outlining how the amount of private data stored on smart phones and similar devices should require the government to get a search warrant from a judge. "At the very least, border agents must demonstrate good reason to believe the traveler was violating the law before conducting the search," the ACLU writes. "We urged the court to reject the government's argument that cell phones should be treated the same as regular luggage, which border authorities are routinely allowed to search without a warrant or any individualized suspicion."