A three-judge panel in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that border agents do not have the authority to search a phone to determine if a crime has been committed. The officers can only look through it for digital contraband, such as pornography.
The decision came after a patrol dog sniffed out cocaine in the spare tire of a man’s vehicle as he was crossing from Mexico to the U.S. The agents conducted a forensic search of his phone to pull up text and call logs.
The agents didn’t have a warrant to conduct the search, and the defendant’s lawyers filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained, arguing that it infringed upon protections from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Typically, law enforcement needs to get a court order before looking through an individual’s personal property, which includes their homes, vehicles, and cell phones. If they conduct and unlawful examination, evidence obtained may not be permissible in court.
However, the trial court said the search was lawful because border searches were exempt from the warrant requirement. The man was convicted of committing a drug crime.
The 9th Circuit Court, overturned that decision, stating that the border exception applied for searches of digital contraband or importation offenses, such as carrying a pirated phone. Judge Jay S. Bybee stated that “border officials have no general authority to search for a crime.” The ruling also reversed the defendant’s initial conviction.
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