ACLU sues government over laptop searches, seizures

| 8/28/2009

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers inspected about 1,000 laptop computers from travelers and others who made border crossings between Oct. 1, 2008, and Aug. 11, 2009, the federal government said this week.

The government hasn’t disclosed, however, how many laptops have been seized and for how long federal investigators have kept laptops in their possession.

Because little is known about the federal government’s searches of electronic media devices, the American Civil Liberties Union this week sued the U.S. CBP to obtain records on the searches.

The issue could affect truck drivers, including many who haul into Canada or Mexico and use laptops for electronic logbooks, mapping and e-mail.

“Traveling with a laptop shouldn’t mean the government gets a free pass to rifle through your personal papers,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. “This sort of broad and invasive search is exactly what the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches are designed to prevent.”

Crump told Land Line the ACLU doesn’t object to border searches, but believes the current search policy doesn’t prevent arbitrary searches.

“All we want is for the government to have to have some reasonable suspicion that an individual is committing a crime before searching through their laptop,” Crump said.

On Thursday, Aug. 27, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced “new directives” for searches at border crossings for computer technology and for items like briefcases and backpacks.

Napolitano said of the approximate 1,000 searches between Oct. 1, 2008, and Aug. 11, 2009, only 46 were “in-depth.”

Crump said the new directives don’t require reasonable suspicion, and don’t change much from a policy instituted during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2008.

“We hoped when President Obama came into office that he would rescind the policy,” Crump said on Friday, Aug. 28. “But, unfortunately, yesterday’s announcement confirmed the administration won’t.”

Crump said the ACLU is trying to determine whether truckers have been affected by the technology searches, but has little access to government statistics.

“This kind of information is important for the public to have if they’re going to evaluate whether this policy actually serves the public interest,” Crump said.

For more information on DHS search policy, visit

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer