The Government Can No Longer Freely Search Your Devices At The Border In 9 States

The U.S. Border Patrol claims the right to search traveler laptops, thumb drives, cell phones, and other devices capable of storing electronic information.

When they call it a ‘border search” they can do this not just when you’re “crossing the U.S. border” in either direction (i.e. when you’re leaving, not just when you’re entering the country) but even “at the extended border” which generally means within 100 miles of the border, which encompasses where two-thirds of the U.S. population lives.

Three years ago the U.S. government adopted a policy that if you won’t give up the password to your electronic devices when entering the country, they can just keep your devices. And then last year they announced that they can create a central repository of traveler emails, and keep your data stored for 75 years.

So it’s no surprise that electronic device searches have been on the rise. Between October 2008 and June 2010 6500 devices were searched. In 2016 there were 10,000 device searches, and 30,200 in 2017. That hit 41,000 in 2019.

It looks like most of those searches aren’t legal. In November 2019 a federal judge in Boston ruled that forensic searches of cell phones require at least reasonable suspicion “that the devices contain contraband.”

And now the Supreme Court has let stand a 9th Circuit ruling that,

prohibits…fishing expeditions for intelligence or evidence of a crime — past or future, border-related or not..Instead, border officers now must limit their search for one thing: digital contraband — defined largely by the courts as child pornography, according to the ruling.

So far this ruling applies only to the jurisdiction of the 9th circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

If you don’t want your devices searched, consider entering and leaving the U.S. via these states and territories. Immigration can still “manually search the devices of anyone crossing, without any level of suspicion” however “they must only search for digital contraband, and only in places on the phone where such material would be stored.”

Should the government want to do a forensic search of your devices, they need “reasonable suspicion” which they’ll try to manufacture but they can’t just do it on a whim. And even so it can only be for digital contraband. Searches for investigative purposes require a warrant.

If the government manually searches your device for contraband and finds evidence of a crime in the process, they should stop the search and obtain a warrant (unless an exception to warrant requirements applies).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Not sure about your advice “If the government manually searches your device for contraband and finds evidence of a crime in the process, they should stop the search and obtain a warrant (unless an exception to warrant requirements applies)”.

    Imagine the application for the warrant. “We are applying for this warrant because we illegally found some evidence of a crime that we now wish to officially find and use to prosecute the offender”.

    If those grounds are accepted, we’ve lost all our rights to unreasonable searches and seizures.

  2. Open borders NOW.

    When I travel from California to Oregon, I cross a WELCOME sign.

    Nobody asks me about my citizenship.

    Nobody asks me where I’m going.

    Nobody asks me where I’m up to.

    Nobody asks if I have meat, fruit, food, seeds, plants, or if I have been on a farm.

    There’s no secondary inspection that I have to wait hours for.

    I don’t stand a chance of being turned back to California at my transportation provider’s expense.

    So why is it that when I travel from Mexico to California, I could be subject to all the above? Makes no sense. The Mex-Cal border is just as man made as Cal-Oregon. Mexicans are people. Oregonians are people. All the same DNA as Californians.


  3. P Ness,

    Watch Narcos and other documentaries on the fun in Mexico.

    Mexico doesn’t have the same integrity as the United States. Mexico is not only corrupt, but overrun by vigilantes.

    There’s a reason why people are flowing into the boarder states. These people need to be vetted. Trafficking is a major problem today. It’s not only drugs either, it’s humans too.

  4. @P Ness

    You should be angry that illegals get a warm welcome with $40K a year in benefits for their families and Citizens/legitimate tourists get put through the wringer when coming home from a trip or visiting. Illegals get the red carpet and citizens are treated like dirt. It’s disgusting. Travelers are routinely harassed and abused by TSA/by flight attendants acting as federal agents/by immigration. Non western dangerous groups coming over the southern border don’t belong here (yes different groups have different dna) yet are treated like royalty.

    Searches at the border of electronic devices of citizens and legitimate tourists is an example of why the current system doesn’t work for conservatives/whites/the working class. Any system that allows government to search your phones/iPads is one that is wholly corrupted. If 100 million conservatives used their numbers to say no to the system, it would collapse. Unfortunately, most of the conservative leaders are actually leftists in disguise who believe the police state should be supreme and individuals shouldn’t have freedom. They tell us to do nothing and obey law enforcement when law enforcement are the evil doers.

  5. @P Ness – You realize that California is part of different country than Mexico is, right?

  6. Returning from a 3 week trip to Asia. P2 gets the black X on the document. Since we have the same address, I follow along. We were practically strip searched because of the Conrad stuffed toys. I am a photographer, I had over 20 SD cards, over half were empty as I didn’t do any video. They searched everything. CBP has a computer that searches memory cards. They opened every single thing. Some things were factory sealed, they opened all of them. But still it took over an hour. Luckily we had time for connecting flights.

    It was humiliating and uncalled for. Now, I am in their faces, when they start questioning my camera equipment and whatever. Because if you are accusing me, I need to know upfront what the accusations are. Now with Covid, I do not want their filthy, who knows what they have touched hands, on my possessions! The CBP profiles people, if you look like what they think is kiddie porn dealer, they attack you and your possessions. It shouldn’t be allowed.

    @Jackson Waterson—Our altercation occurred while Trump was President, and in a Republican governed state. These rules were put in place by Republican administrations and Republican Congresses.

  7. Maybe you folks can leave the politics out of it, and celebrate the fact that there are a FEW states left (pacific NW and west coast) where we’ve retained a BIT of personal freedom. Most of our freedoms are lost, though.

  8. @JohnB

    Both parties are complicit. Trump is in illogical puppet who talked about domestic spying and then forgot about it because no one pushed the discussion with high energy (or maybe he was upset about it because he was spied on but didn’t care about everyone else). Leftists believe government owns your body and property. Unfortunately, most Republican politicians (not actual conservatives) aren’t any better on the issue than Dems.

    It’s the same with civil asset forfeiture. We heard some Dems talk about it and they’ve forgot about it for 5 years.

    Sorry you were abused by the government. Hopefully you recognize that agents of the government are evil and hopefully you’ll get retribution one day. Anyone who blindly follows orders is a bad person.

  9. @Jackson Waterson
    Continually making things up aren’t you Jack. Yep, criminal gangs are treated like royalty. Of course, Jack you didn’t make that up. You have some proof. So the system doesn’t work for conservative whites who work for a living. Ha!Ha! Man, you can’t make that up can you? So if 100 million conservatives complain, the system will collapse. Ha!Ha!Ha! Hey Jack do you appear in Comedy clubs? You’re really funny. I bet you get lots of laughs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. While PNess continues to expand on his/her level of stupidity

    I’m still in shock by this one statement in the article

    “And now the Supreme Court has let stand a 9th Circuit ruling”

  11. Wrong agency. The U.S. Border Patrol does not work at airports or port of entries.

    U.S. Customs works those positions.

    That’s like saying call the local CIA officer to report your car stolen.

  12. @David Rowell That is the way it works. It’s called The Plain View doctrine.
    If the government is doing something that is allowed and in the process they stumble across something that they think is illegal. They don’t just have to close their eyes and ignore it they get to notice it and act on it.

  13. @ Jackson Waterson

    You do understand that under Obama searching at the border was done, but it was small potatoes then. Under Obama, CBP searched between 500 and 600 electronic devices of people entering the U.S. annually. Then under Trump, CBP ramped up these border searches beyond anyone’s expectations. Under your conservative president’s administration, CBP averaged more than 33,000 electronic devices searched at the border annually.

    So please spare us the conservative hyperbole of outrage and total nonsense, and please don’t bother to tell us that Trump was really a liberal in disguise. He turned about as far right as can happen years ago. The so-called GOP in this country are conservatives in name only and fight for conservative issues only when it affects their personal pocketbook and fight for freedom without responsibility. They lost me decades ago when they sold their soul for mindless trickle-down theory that has shown itself to be worthless and ineffectual for the nation over and over again.

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