April 22, 2008
In a ruling that's likely to come as a disappointment for privacy-rights advocates, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this week held that Customs officers need no reasonable suspicion to search through the contents of any individual's laptop computer at the country's borders.
The ruling reversed an earlier decision by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which had granted a motion seeking to suppress evidence gathered from such a search in a case involving child pornography. In arriving at that decision, the District Court ruled that Customs officers indeed did need to have reasonable or particularized suspicion for searching through laptop computers at U.S. borders.
The case involves a man named Michael Arnold, who was arrested in 2005 on charges of transporting child pornography on his laptop computer. According to a description of the case in court records, Arnold was returning home from a three-week vacation in the Philippines in July 2005, when he was pulled aside for secondary Customs screening at Los Angeles International Airport.
A Customs officer who was inspecting Arnold's luggage asked him to start his computer and had it examined by colleagues who found several images of what they believed were child pornography on the computer and in several storage devices that Arnold was carrying with him.