Federal Court OKs Laptop Search at Border

Rhett Pardon
SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. Customs inspection of a laptop computer that found child pornography does not constitute an unreasonable search and seizure, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday determined the appeal of Michael T. Arnold, who landed at Los Angeles International Airport in 2005 after a 20-hour flight from the Philippines, carrying a laptop that included folders called “Kodak pictures” and “Kodak memories.”

Customs agents later found child pornography in those folders.

Arnold argued the U.S. Constitution’s protections against searches without reasonable suspicion should have barred the search of his laptop.

In its en banc ruling, the 9th Circuit said that the search of a laptop is no different than luggage, and that reasonable suspicion is not necessary to check laptops or other electronic devices coming over border checkpoints.

"Arnold has failed to distinguish how the search of his laptop and its electronic contents is logically any different from the suspicionless border searches of travelers' luggage that the Supreme Court and we have allowed," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote.

The case echoes a similar 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which upheld the 2005 conviction of John W. Ickes Jr., who crossed the Canadian border with a computer containing child pornography. A customs agent’s suspicions were raised, the court’s decision said, “after discovering a video camera containing a tape of a tennis match which focused excessively on a young ball boy.”

In the Arnold case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives filed amicus briefs, claiming there have to be some limits on the government’s ability to acquire information.

“Under the government’s reasoning,” the brief said, “border authorities could systematically collect all of the information contained on every laptop computer, BlackBerry and other electronic device carried across our national borders by every traveler, American or foreign.” That is, the brief said, “simply electronic surveillance after the fact.”

The case is U.S. vs. Michael T. Arnold, No. 05-00772.