FILE - In this March 26, 2019, file photo, an airline passenger walk in the arrivals terminal at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

FILE - In this March 26, 2019, file photo, an airline passenger walk in the arrivals terminal at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

U.S. searches of phones, laptops at airports rising, suit says

A federal lawsuit that claims going through electronic devices without a warrant is unconstitutional

U.S. government searches of travellers’ cellphones and laptops at airports and border crossings nearly quadrupled since 2015 and are being conducted for reasons beyond customs and immigration enforcement, according to papers filed Tuesday in a federal lawsuit that claims going through electronic devices without a warrant is unconstitutional.

The government has vigorously defended the searches, which rose to 33,295 in fiscal 2018, as a critical tool to protect America. But the newly filed documents claim the scope of the warrantless searches has expanded to enforce tax, bankruptcy, environmental and consumer protection laws, gather intelligence and advance ongoing law enforcement investigations.

READ MORE: Foreign national arrested in connection to thefts at YVR

Agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement consider requests from other government agencies in determining whether to search travellers’ electronic devices, the court papers said. They added that agents are searching the electronic devices of not only targeted individuals but their associates, friends and relatives.

The new information about the searches was included in a motion the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.

“The evidence we have presented the court shows that the scope of ICE and CBP border searches is unconstitutionally broad,” said Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney for the EFF, based in San Francisco.

“ICE and CBP policies and practices allow unfettered, warrantless searches of travellers’ digital devices and empower officers to dodge the Fourth Amendment when rifling through highly personal information contained on laptops and phones,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment. Both ICE and CBP said they did not comment on pending litigation.

When the suit was filed against the government in 2017, DHS officials said U.S. citizens and everyone else are subject to examination and search by customs officials, unless exempted by diplomatic status. The department has contended that no court has concluded that border searches of electronic devices require a warrant. Searches, some random, have uncovered evidence of human trafficking, terrorism, child pornography, visa fraud, export control breaches and intellectual property rights violations, according to the department.

The original case was filed on behalf of 10 American citizens and a lawful permanent resident from seven states who alleged the searches violated their constitutional rights. They asked the court to rule that the government must have a warrant based on probable cause before searching electronic devices at airports and other U.S. ports of entry.

READ MORE: Glitch causes delays at major U.S. airlines

A year ago, U.S. District Judge Denise Casper in Boston rejected the government’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing the case to move forward. The ACLU and the foundation began gathering documents and deposition testimony. Based on the new information, they filed a motion Tuesday asking the judge to rule in their favour without a trial.

“This new evidence reveals that the government agencies are using the pretext of the border to make an end run around the First and Fourth Amendments,” said ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari. “The border is not a lawless place. ICE and CBP are not exempt from the Constitution and the information on our electronic devices is not devoid of Fourth Amendment protections. We are asking the court to stop these unlawful searches and require the government to get a warrant.”

The court documents claim that the agencies also assert the authority to search electronic devices when the subject of interest is someone other than the traveller, such as the business partner of someone under investigation. Both agencies also allow officers to retain information from travellers’ electronic devices and share it with other government entities, including state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies, the court papers claim.

Deb Riechmann, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maintenance work at lower City Centre Mall parking lot. (Clare Rayment/Kitimat Northern Sentinel)
Lower City Centre Mall entrance by No Frills closed

District doing maintenance work from 8 a.m. to early afternoon Wednesday (Jan. 27)

Collision at the Haisla/Kuldo Blvds. intersection Tuesday (Jan. 26). (Clare Rayment/Kitimat Northern Sentinel)
Collision at Haisla and Kuldo Boulevards

Five people taken to hospital with minor injuries

Angie Mindus photo
Clare’s Corner: A place for everything — and I mean everything

It’s amazing to see how much ‘stuff’ one can accumulate in their house over several months

(Jacqueline Sweet photo)
Jacqueline Sweet, right, at her graduation from the Bachelor of Arts at Simon Fraser University with her friend and fellow graduate, Laura Taylor.
In Our Valley: Jacqueline Sweet

Sweet said her career can feel isolating in the North, but she loves that she’s able to help people

(Cara Webb photo)
Cara Webb’s dog, Millie, who bolted during New Year’s Eve fireworks and was missing for almost a week. She was eventually found by Webb’s neighbour.
Good News, Kitimat!

Bringing some local good news to your week

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks at B.C. legislature on the province’s mass vaccination plan for COVID-19, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
COVID-19 quarantine not an option for B.C., John Horgan says

Apres-ski parties increase risk, not interprovincial travel

Worker at Swartz Bay terminal on Monday, January 20, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
Former BC Ferries employee alleges he was fired because of his race

Imraan Goondiwala has been granted a BC Human Rights Tribunal hearing

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker have been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s Civil Emergency Measures Act for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
B.C. couple who travelled to Yukon for COVID vaccine ineligible for 2nd dose until summer

Health officials planning new measures to ensure people verify where they live before inoculation

(File)
Mask dispute in court leaves Vancouver cop with broken leg

Man allegedly refused to put on a mask and resisted arrest

(Kraft Dinner/Twitter)
Kraft Dinner launches candy-flavoured mac and cheese just in time for Valentine’s Day

Sweet and cheesy treat will be here just in time for the cheesiest holiday of the year

SAR crews worked late into the night Tuesday to rescue an injured snowboarder in North Vancouver. (Facebook/North Shore Rescue)
Complicated, dangerous rescue saves man in avalanche near Cypress Mountain

North Shore SAR team braves considerable conditions to reach injured snowboarder

A Cessna 170 airplane similar to the one pictured above is reported to be missing off the waters between Victoria and Washington State. Twitter photo/USCG
UPDATE: No sign of small plane that went down in waters south of Vancouver Island

Searchers out on both sides of border between Victoria and Port Angeles

Most Read