Immigration Agencies and Electronic Device Searches

Federal Court Rules that Immigration Agencies’ Intrusive Searches of Cell Phones, Laptops is Unconstitutional.

Last week, a United States federal court ruled that recent sweeping policies that permit United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to search personal cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices is unconstitutional without responsible suspicion.

The new policies allowed officers to search the contents on electronic devices of people arriving in the United States without any reasonable suspicion that those devices may contain illegal activity. The policies allowed officer to search electronic devices at random of anyone arriving in the United States, including legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens.

A lawsuit was filed against the policies, based on the claim that these random searches are not permitted under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful searches or seizures and requires that law enforcement officers have a warrant before they can search someone or their property. However, there is an exception to this warrant requirement for searches at a U.S. border. Law enforcement officers can conduct “routine” searches at the border without a warrant and without any suspicion at all.

The federal court, however, found that searching someone’s cell phone or laptop is not “routine.” As the court explained, a basic search “may reveal a wealth of information,” including medical information, employment history, and family relationships. These invasive searches are widespread. Data show that in the fiscal year 2017 alone. CBP officers conducted over 30,000 searches of electronic devices.

Under the federal court’s decision, CBP and ICE officers must have reasonable suspicion that an electronic device contains illegal material before it can be searched in order to comply with the Fourth Amendment.

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