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SearchesJudge: Border agents can search laptops, storage media, cellphones

Published 2 January 2014

A federal court on Tuesday said that a DHS policy which allows agents at border crossings to search laptops and other electronic devices belonging to U.S. citizens and foreigners is legal. Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old student at McGill University, charged that when he tried to enter the United States from Canada, DHS agents spent five hours searching his laptop and USB drives. They then demanded that he write down his passwords and hand over the laptop and storage media. The judge noted that Abidor told officers he was living in Canada, but that he did not tell the agents that he held both U.S. and French passports, and initially did not produce the passport containing visas from Lebanon and Jordan, thus giving the appearance that he was trying to hide the fact that he had visited these two countries. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York ruled in a 32-page decision that the U.S. government had reasonable suspicion to investigate due to a combination of several factors, including witholding information about his visas. “The agents certainly had reasonable suspicion supporting further inspection of Abidor’s electronic devices,” the judge wrote.

A federal court on Tuesday said that a DHS policy which allows agents at border crossings to search laptops and other electronic devices belonging to U.S. citizens and foreigners is legal.

The DHS directive was issued in 2009, and a year later a graduate student and several civil liberties groups sued the department to stop the inspections by border agents.

The Huffington Post reports that Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old student at the McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies in Montreal, charged that when he tried to enter the United States from Canada, DHS agents spent five hours searching his laptop and USB drives. They then demanded that he write down his passwords and hand over the laptop and storage media. The gear was returned to him after eleven days after federal agents examined he saved files.

He and the civil rights organizations that joined him contended that DHS policy on border searches of electronic devices violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

On Tuesday, the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York ruled in a 32-page decision that the U.S. government had reasonable suspicion to investigate due to a combination of several factors, including witholding information about his visas. 

The judged noted that Abidor told officers he was living in Canada, but that he did not tell the agents that he held both U.S. and French passports, and initially did not produce the passport containing visas from Lebanon and Jordan, thus giving the appearance that he was trying the hide the fact that he had visited these two countries.

The agents certainly had reasonable suspicion supporting further inspection of Abidor’s electronic devices,” U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman wrote in the court decision.

Abidor eventually told an agent that he had briefly lived in Jordan and visited Lebanon in the previous year. At that point the officer asked Abidor to turn on the laptop, which contained pictures and videos of rallies by Hamas and Hezbollah.

The two organizations are on the U.S. terrorist organization list, so the officer asked Abdor why he had so many Hezbollah-related pictures and videos. Abidor explained that his graduate research focused on the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon (Hezbollah is a Shi’a organization).