As noted previously in this Blog, the Obama Administration has continued the policy of the previous administration and claimed the right to seize the laptop computers and other electronic devices of any person entering the country. The feds also assert the right to retain the devices indefinitely to search for whatever evidence the government wishes. This unbridled power to search personal files without warrant applies to foreigners as well as American citizens returning from travels abroad.
Now, at long last, a federal judge in California has placed at least some limits on the government’s ability to seize laptops, hold them indefinitely, and peruse them for evidence of criminality whenever the government’s agents feel the desire. In the California case, U.S. citizen Andrew Hanson was returning from a trip to South Korea in January 2009. Customs agents seized his laptop, digital camera, and other property because they suspected Hanson’s equipment contained evidence of child pornography. They searched the laptop on at least two occasions in January and February 2009, and again five months later in June. It was this latter search, conducted many months after Hanson’s entry into the country, that US District Court Judge Jeffrey White found to be unreasonable and as to which he prohibited the government from using any evidence gathered as a result.
While the government still may seize and search laptop computers and other devices and papers at ports of entry without warrants, if it decides to hold the equipment and search it at times distant from the time of entry, at least in the Northern District of California individual citizens now enjoy some relief from excessive and instrusive government snooping.