9th Circuit rules federal agents can’t confiscate people’s cellphones at ports of entry

World

SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — It was 2018 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers ordered a man to unlock and hand over his cellphone. It was returned to him 45 minutes, but not before the officers downloaded all the data, pictures and contact information.

The man, a U.S. citizen and immigrant-rights group volunteer was stopped at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for his alleged involvement with a migrant caravan.

Per court filings, he was one of 41,000 international travelers who had their phones and/or laptops searched by agents between October 2018 and October 2019.

The case is behind the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision to strike down a federal agent’s ability to confiscate personal electronic devices.

Aerial view of cars lining up to cross the US/Mexico border to San Diego at San Ysidro port of entry, in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, on October 6, 2020. This is one of several ports of entry where people had their cell phones and/or laptops confiscated by agents. (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)

“U.S. agents are trained so their number one job is to protect the homeland from acts of terrorism or derivatives of federal crimes, they’re supposed to be suspicious. In other words, you can’t blame the agents,” said Ev Meade with the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute.

Meade says that border officers were initially acting on behalf of national security, but the policy got away from the Department of Homeland Security.

“Under the previous administration, officers kept a blacklist under homeland security and they blacklisted reporters, humanitarian workers and lawyers, and they seized their phones and laptops. It’s very reasonable to question the scope of these searches and to say you’re doing it under the pretexts of homeland security. The court said clearly no,” Meade said.

Meade told Border Report it’s very obvious the court felt CBP officers did not have the right to go through people’s personal electronic devices.

“And have they actually shown it serves some compelling public purpose to have violated these people’s privacy? No, the government has not met the burden that there was some compelling public interest in violating people’s privacy,” he said.

The 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has all but eliminated agents’ ability to ask people for their phones and laptops without a warrant.

Last month’s ruling prohibits “fishing expeditions” for evidence of a crime, border-related or not.

CBP officers can only search for digital contraband, particularly child pornography.

The court’s decision only impacts ports of entry, airports and ship ports of call in the western United States within the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction.

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