ACLU in Federal Court Today Challenging Government's Searches of Laptops at Border

July 8, 2011 9:27 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today will argue in federal court that the government shouldn’t be able to search people’s laptops and other electronic devices at border checks without reasonable suspicion. Government documents show that thousands of American citizens are wrongfully searched when they return from trips abroad.

“Allowing government officials to look through Americans’ most personal materials – the things we store on our laptops, cameras and cell phones – without reasonable suspicion is unconstitutional, inconsistent with American values and a waste of limited resources,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “The government has no limits on what it can search at the border, and maintains that a computer or cell phone should be treated just like any other baggage at a border check. But we all know that an electronic device is very different than a suitcase.”

The ACLU, New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a lawsuit in September 2010 against the Department of Homeland Security, which asserts the right to look though the contents of a traveler’s electronic devices – including laptops, cameras and cell phones – and to keep the devices or copy the contents in order to continue searching them once the traveler has been allowed to enter the U.S., regardless of whether the traveler is suspected of any wrongdoing.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), whose members include television and still photographers, editors, students and representatives of the photojournalism industry; NACDL, which has attorney members in 25 countries; and Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old dual French-American citizen who had his laptop searched and confiscated at the Canadian border.

Abidor was travelling from Montreal to New York on an Amtrak train in May 2010 when he had his laptop searched and confiscated by customs officers. Abidor, an Islamic Studies Ph.D. student at McGill University, was questioned, taken off the train in handcuffs, and held in a cell for several hours before being released without charge. When his laptop was returned 11 days later, there was evidence that many of his personal files had been searched, including photos and chats with his girlfriend.

“Just because I travelled outside the U.S. shouldn’t mean that I left my Constitutional rights behind,” said Abidor. “The government shouldn’t be able to use border checks as an excuse to do an end run around the Bill of Rights.”

Today’s hearing on the government’s motion to dismiss will be at 2:30 PM at the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, Courtroom 8A South.

More information about the case is available online at:

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