Privacy Law

Laptop seized at border isn't like a handbag, judge says; evidence from warrantless search is tossed

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Federal agents who seized a laptop computer without a warrant at the Los Angeles International Airport may not use the contents in a prosecution against a South Korean businessman, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington, D.C., rejected the government’s argument that the border-search exception allowed the warrantless seizure of the computer, Ars Technica and the Blog of Legal Times report. The government had argued the exception applied because the laptop is a container that it has an unfettered right to search.

“Given the vast storage capacity of even the most basic laptops, and the capacity of computers to retain metadata and even deleted material, one cannot treat an electronic storage device like a handbag simply because you can put things in it and then carry it onto a plane,” Jackson wrote in the opinion (PDF), issued last Friday.

Jackson cited the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in Riley v. California, which held that police generally can’t search the contents of a cellphone seized during arrest unless they get a warrant.

Jackson’s ruling is a “devastating blow” to the prosecution of Jae Shik Kim, who is accused of illegally selling weapons technology to Iran, according to Ars Technica.

“Under the totality of the unique circumstances of this case,” Jackson said, “the imaging and search of the entire contents of Kim’s laptop, aided by specialized forensic software, for a period of unlimited duration and an examination of unlimited scope, for the purpose of gathering evidence in a pre-existing investigation, was supported by so little suspicion of ongoing or imminent criminal activity, and was so invasive of Kim’s privacy and so disconnected from not only the considerations underlying the breadth of the government’s authority to search at the border, but also the border itself, that it was unreasonable.”

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