A federal judge in Boston has ruled that indiscriminate searches of travelers’ cell phones and laptops violates their Fourth Amendment privacy rights and is therefore unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Denise J. Casper, an Obama appointee, issued her ruling Tuesday in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in September 2017.
Eleven travelers sued after their electronic devices were searched at U.S. ports of entry by border authorities.
In her ruling, Casper said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol agents have to identify “specific and articulable facts for reasonable suspicion” that travelers’ devices contain contraband in order to perform a search.
She also ruled, however, that searches based on reasonable suspicion could be conducted without first obtaining a search warrant due to governmental interests in ensuring a secure border.
The ACLU hailed the ruling as a substantial victory for privacy rights, claiming that it not only protects international travelers but also U.S. citizens.
“By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicion-less fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel,” said Esha Bhandari, an attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
“This is a great day for travelers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” EFF Senior Staff Attorney Sophia Cope said in a statement.
The ruling comes as ICE and CBP agents increased their searches of devices at U.S. ports of entry.
According to CBP data, 30,200 electronic devices were searched in fiscal year 2017, up from 19,051 the year prior and 8,503 in 2015.
CBP Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner has said that it is “essential” to border security that electronic device searches are conducted.