Laptops May be Seized at U.S. Borders, Upon Suspicion

DETROIT—Borders are becoming increasingly problematic places through which to pass for those who travel with laptops or other electronic devices, which is pretty much everyone these days. Travelers entering Australia are now likely to be asked if they are carrying any pornography, and those entering the Unites States can have their devices searched for contraband such as child pornography, as well. This week, a federal judge ruled that Customs agents also can seize a computer if they don’t have the ability to inspect it immediately, but only if they have sufficient suspicion.

The ruling comes in response to a motion by the defendant in the case to suppress evidence found on a seized computer. The defendant, Theodore Stewart, claims that images of child abuse found on one of two laptops he was transporting into the country was discovered in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure and search.

The search was conducted last May, when Stewart arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Indonesia. A search by Customs agents discovered what they believed to be illegal images of child abuse on one of his computers. The second computer had a damaged battery and no power adapter, making immediate inspection of its contents impossible. The government seized both laptops, removed the hard drive of the second one at a separate facility, and found suspected child porn on it, as well. Stewart was subsequently charged with transporting child pornography. In response to the motion to suppress, the government claimed that the images found on the first laptop necessitated the seizure of the second.

Judge David Lawson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan found potential problems with both parties’ arguments.

"Removing the laptops from the point of entry into the country and transporting them to a remote forensic laboratory may result in an intrusion greater than one might reasonably expect upon entering or re-entering the United States," he wrote, adding that Stewart was therefore correct in arguing that he was subjected to an extended border search.

But the agents were also exercising their constitutional prerogative in seizing the second laptop, the judge said, once they found illegal contraband on the first laptop. That and the fact that the agents conducted a search of the second computer within one day of its seizure made their actions valid and lawful, the judge said, in denying the motion to suppress.

While in this case the agents acted properly, Lawson added, “There comes a point when the passage of time or other circumstances can transform a seizure of property reasonable at its outset into an unreasonable intrusion.”

Considering the ubiquity of these devices and the extent to which they are employed for both business and personal usage, not to mention that it is often impossible to ascertain the actual age of models and performers—or the fact that governments are becoming fanatically weird about even legal pornography—international travelers worried about prying eyes at the border, or who are concerned about losing sensitive company information at the hands of a clumsy Customs technician, might want to consider the use of cloud computing in the future.