The U.S. is moving in a “Papers, please” direction, but now they say, “Phone, please.”
Patrick G. Lee reports in ProPublica:
This story has been updated to add that Customs and Border Protection agents must have probable cause of wrongdoing to make stops outside the 100-mile border zone within which they have broad search powers.
A NASA scientist heading home to the U.S. said he was detained in January at a Houston airport, where Customs and Border Protection officers pressured him for access to his work phone and its potentially sensitive contents.
Last month, CBP agents checked the identification of passengers leaving a domestic flight at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport during a search for an immigrant with a deportation order.
And in October, border agents seized phones and other work-related material from a Canadian photojournalist. They blocked him from entering the U.S. after he refused to unlock the phones, citing his obligation to protect his sources.
These and other recent incidents have revived confusion and alarm over what powers border officials actually have and, perhaps more importantly, how to know when they are overstepping their authority.
The unsettling fact is that border officials have long had broad powers — many people just don’t know about them. Border officials, for instance, have search powers that extend 100 air miles inland from any external boundary of the U.S. That means border agents can stop and question people at fixed checkpoints dozens of miles from U.S. borders. They can also pull over motorists whom they suspect of a crime as part of “roving” border patrol operations.
Sowing even more uneasiness, ambiguity around the agency’s search powers — especially over electronic devices — has persisted for years as courts nationwide address legal challenges raised by travelers, privacy advocates and civil-rights groups.
We’ve dug out answers about the current state-of-play when it comes to border searches, along with links to more detailed resources.
Doesn’t the Fourth Amendment protect us from “unreasonable searches and seizures”?
Yes. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution articulates the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” However, those protections are lessened when entering the country at international terminals at airports, other ports of entry and subsequently any location that falls within 100 air miles of an external U.S. boundary.
How broad is Customs and Border Protection’s search authority?
According to federal statutes, regulations and court decisions, CBP officers have the authority to inspect, without a warrant, any person trying to gain entry into the country and their belongings. CBP can also question individuals about their citizenship or immigration status and ask for documents that prove admissibility into the country.
This blanket authority for warrantless, routine searches at a port of entry ends when CBP decides to undertake a more invasive procedure, such as a body cavity search. For these kinds of actions, the CBP official needs to have some level of suspicion that a particular person is engaged in illicit activity, not simply that the individual is trying to enter the U.S.
Does CBP’s search authority cover electronic devices like smartphones and laptops? . . .