Federal judge curtails airport laptop seizures

A federal judge has ruled against the Obama administration’s controversial practice of seizing laptops for an extended period of time at border crossings without a warrant.

According to US District Judge Jeffrey White, the confiscation of a laptop belonging to an American citizen returning home from South Korea was unlawful and required a warrant.

Indeed, the laptop was reportedly locked away for six months before being examined by forensic experts for contraband files.

“The Justice Department invoked a novel argument – which White dubbed ‘unpersuasive’ – claiming that while Hanson was able to enter the country, his laptop remained in a kind of legal limbo where the Bill of Rights did not apply,” explained CNET’s Declan McCullagh.

Hanson was selected for a secondary baggage examination after custom officials observed him acting in a nervous and suspicious fashion.

Further searches of the laptop and related equipment – conducted at a later date – turned up an incriminating photograph of a naked adolescent girl covered with mud on a beach. 

Hanson was subsequently charged with transportation and possession of child pornography in September 2009. He pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile, Hanson’s lawyer acknowledged that an “immediate search” conducted at the border without a warrant was acceptable – but not a “police perusal” of a hard drive six months later.

“As applied to border searches generally, agents, after taking their permissible look while at the border crossing itself, would be free to ‘detain’ electronic devices and conduct further examinations whenever and wherever they pleased as justified solely because their ‘peek’ exposed the computer’s contents to law enforcement,” opined Chase.