Traveler Search and Seizure

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law

Documents released as part of a legal settlement between the Department of Homeland Security and the fundraiser working for the defense of Chelsea (formerly PFC Bradley) Manning reveal that the government has been using “travel alerts” at border crossings to confiscate and examine electronic devices without a warrant. By taking these devices and copying their data, the government has been circumventing protections against unreasonable search and seizure; courts have been allowing the seizures as tools to combat activities such as drug smuggling, but in some cases the person may not even be a suspect in an investigation.

David House was working as a computer programmer at the time of the 2010 incident, and although government investigators had questioned him about his efforts to raise funds for the defense of Manning, no one had requested a warrant to search his computer. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement subsequently issued what is known as a TECS lookout; House was flagged in the computer system as “wanted for questioning re leak of classified materials” and border agents were ordered to “secure digital media” if he appeared at an inspection point. When House returned from vacation in Mexico, law enforcement confiscated his laptop, camera, cell phone and thumb drive.

“Americans crossing the border are being searched and their digital media is being seized in the hopes that the government will find something to have them convicted,” Mr. House said. “I think it’s important for business travelers and people who consider themselves politically inclined to know what dangers they now face in a country where they have no real guarantee of privacy at the border.”

According to the terms of the settlement, the government has agreed to destroy all copies of the data they took from Mr. House’s devices – which contained no evidence of a crime, according to settlement documents – and he will be removed from the travel alert list and will no longer be detained when he returns to the United States from traveling abroad.

The law remains unclear regarding limits on intrusive border inspections, including the length of time a traveler may be detained and whether they are required to provide passwords or answer other questions.

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