SEARCH AND SEIZURE IN THE DIGITAL AGE


March 19, 2013

Earlier this month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that border agents may not perform a forensic search of a traveler's laptop merely because he is crossing the border into the United States. In the current climate of heightened security to prevent terroristic acts, we have sacrificed some of our basic freedoms as Americans. In this particular case, it was the breadth of coverage of the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution versus the boarder search exception doctrine.

The Fourth Amendment states in a nut shell that we shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This boarder doctrine is a product of United States criminal law that allows basically unfettered searches and seizures within 100 miles of a border without the need for a warrant.

In the case before the Ninth Circuit, a traveler's laptop computer was confiscated by the government for 5 days while it ran encryption software to break the traveler's security codes. The Court recognized that while the Supreme Court has virtually suspended the Fourth Amendment at international boarders, this type of conduct went too far. The Ninth Circuit clearly stated in its Opinion that the government needed a "reasonable suspicion of illegal activity" before border agents can invade a person's right to digital privacy. In particular, the Court stated, "A person's digital life ought not be hijacked simply by crossing a border." Please click this link to read a copy of the Opinion.

Too bad for the traveler in this case however; while the Court stated a standard that required a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, the Court found that this standard was met. This traveler had a prior conviction for child pornography and was travelling from Mexico which is known to have a high incidence of child sex crimes. Combined with the fact that significant child pornography was indeed found on his computer's hard drive made for an easy decision to get this predator off the street and rule the seizure valid.

So what should employers in Philadelphia and the surrounding four counties (Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware) take away from this regarding digital privacy rights? Well, Philadelphia International Airport (and Newark Airport for that matter) is considered an international boarder. Thus, the government conceivably can just walk up to one of your employees and in the name of security confiscate your company laptop, tablet or smart phone. What trade secrets or customer lists are on these digital file servers? What confidential agreements have you just broken by allowing the government to view highly confidential information? Do you have an obligation to immediately file an injunction to prevent the government from viewing the contents of your smart phone? Do you have to report this to your Board of Directors?

While it is comforting that courts are starting to respect that the Fourth Amendment needs to be interpreted in light of the digital age within which we now live, please keep in mind that this is just one appellate court's decision and only rules the day out west (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington). If you would like to discuss this in greater detail and how your business can take proactive steps to protect itself, please contact one of the attorneys at Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt, P.C. and we will be happy to meet with you and discuss your concerns.

This entry is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.