Laptop seizures at customs cause thorny legal dispute
David House took his laptop to Mexico a little over a year ago, hoping to squeeze in some work between sightseeing, fishing, and laying on the beach. All went well, vacation- and work-wise, until the former MIT researcher landed in Chicago, where federal agents seized his laptop, kept it for nearly two months, and may have shared information on his hard drive with several government agencies.
They didn’t have a search warrant. They didn’t charge him with a crime. And there was nothing House could do about it.
House, 24, ran into what civil liberties advocates call the “Constitution-free zone’’ at US ports of entry, where courts have carved out broad exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As long as they don’t use invasive techniques such as strip searches, government agents don’t need reasonable suspicion or probable cause to seize what they want - including laptops, a 2008 appeals court ruling held.
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