SCOTUS Declines to Determine Fourth Amendment Standard For Border Searches, Leaving Circuit Split Intact

The Federal Docket

December 3, 2020
Busy border crossing at US/Canada Border, Peace Arch, Washington state, USA

The U.S. Supreme Court recently denied ceriorari in a case where the petitioner asked the Court to step in and decide what standard law enforcement must meet when seeking to search and individual’s electronic devices at the border.

Generally, searching through someone’s property without a warrant requires probable cause. That rule does not apply at the border, however, where the government’s interests in border security are so high that the law allows border agents to conduct “routine searches” of people and property crossing into the country without probable cause. However, as technology has evolved and as our electronic devices contain more private information, there has been an emerging debate over whether law enforcement agents, even those at the border, can search through all of your property and devices when you cross the border.

In a recent Law360 article, Alexander Lawrence and Sara Stearns engage in a helpful tutorial discussing the difference between “routine searches,” including pat-downs, and “nonroutine border searches,” such as the forensic search of someone’s electronic devices, and whether agents have to at least have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is engaged in illegal activity before engaging in more invasive searches.

Lawrence and Stearn note that circuits are split on this issue, with some courts holding that border agents can engage in forensic searches without probable cause or any suspicion (11th Circuit) and others holding that there must be reasonable suspicion that an individual’s device contains contraband (9th Circuit), will reveal evidence of a crime (4th Circuit), or if any illegal activity is suspected (10th Circuit). The other circuits have not weighed in yet.

Click here to read the full article on Law360.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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