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4/23/2008
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Border Agents Can Search Laptops Without Cause, Court Rules

The 3-0 decision is likely to extend to cell phones and other personal electronic devices.

U.S. border agents can search traveler's laptops without suspicion, according to a recent court ruling.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that computers are like luggage and therefore subject to searches at national borders and airports. The 3-0 decision is likely to extend to cell phones and other personal electronic devices. It overturns a previous ruling that sided with a defendant's arguments that laptop searches to constitute intrusions of the mind.

Timothy Arnold, a 43-year-old teacher from California, challenged the federal government's right to search laptops after border agents searched his computer nearly three years ago, reported finding child pornography, and arrested him on his way back from the Philippines.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that agents must have reasonable suspicion to search electronic devices and said they did not meet that threshold in Arnold's case. The government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court.

Federal laws allow border agents to search diaries and other personal material without cause. The U.S. Department of Justice claims that laptops are no different than other containers and agents must be able to search them in order to prevent crime and protect national security.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives disagrees. It filed an amicus brief siding with Arnold and pointing out that laptops contain personal information, which could be systematically collected, stored, and searched without justification or oversight. Laptops can also be confiscated and held indefinitely.

The ACTE has warned its members to be cautious about carrying proprietary information across U.S. borders because searches could compromise corporate privacy.

Arnold's lawyer plans to appeal the latest decision.

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