ACLU Sues Homeland Security Over Seizure Of Activist's Computer

May 13, 2011

Targeting David House For Lawful Association With Bradley Manning Support Network Is Unconstitutional

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

BOSTON – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the suspicionless search and seizure of electronics and personal data belonging to activist David House. The lawsuit charges that the government targeted House solely on the basis of his lawful association with the Bradley Manning Support Network when it seized House's laptop, USB drive and camera, and proceeded to copy and possibly disseminate their contents.

"Targeting people for searches and seizures based on their lawful associations is unconstitutional," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "The government does not have the authority to demand information about whom you spend time with or what you talk about. We need safeguards to ensure that targeting of people based on their political associations does not continue."

The ACLU lawsuit charges that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) singled out House at the border solely on the basis of his association with the Bradley Manning Support Network, an organization created to raise funds and support for the legal defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning, a soldier charged with leaking a video and documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the WikiLeaks website. In so doing, the government violated House's First Amendment right to freedom of association and Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure of his personal papers and effects. The ACLU lawsuit seeks return or destruction of any of House’s personal data still in the custody of the government and disclosure of whether and to whom the data has been disseminated.

In November 2010, DHS agents stopped House at O'Hare International Airport as he returned from a vacation in Mexico and questioned him about his political activities and beliefs. DHS officials then confiscated his laptop computer, camera and a USB drive and did not return them to House for nearly seven weeks – after the ACLU sent a letter demanding their return. House's detention and interrogation by DHS officials and the seizure of his electronic papers and personal effects had no apparent connection with the protection of U.S. borders or the enforcement of customs laws. Seven months later, House has not received an explanation of why his property was confiscated or what the government has done with the information downloaded from the devices.

"I feel like the American government has made me the target of intrusive and intimidating tactics simply because I joined a lawful group in order to stand up for what I believe is right," said House. "The search and seizure of my laptop has had a chilling effect on the activities of the Bradley Manning Support Network, by silencing once-outspoken supporters and causing donors to retreat. Our government should not be treating lawful activists like suspects."

This lawsuit is one in a series of legal challenges to the government's practice of suspicionless seizures of computers containing personal information at the U.S. border. In a related case, the ACLU, New York Civil Liberties Union and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) last fall filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association, the NACDL and Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old dual U.S.-French citizen who had his laptop searched and confiscated at the Canadian border while traveling home to New York on an Amtrak train. That lawsuit challenges the DHS policy of searching, copying and detaining travelers' laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices at the border when DHS has no reason to believe a search would reveal wrongdoing.

"In this increasingly globalized age, the cost of traveling internationally should not include submitting to boundless searches of the personal, private information we all keep on our laptops and cell phones," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Allowing government officials to look through Americans' most personal materials without reasonable suspicion is unconstitutional, inconsistent with American values and a waste of limited resources.”

Today's lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin and Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement John T. Morton.

For more information, including a video interview with House on the impact the seizure of his property has had, go to: www.aclu.org/house

 

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