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Manual searches of cell phones at the border are reasonable without individualized suspicion, whereas the forensic examination of a cell phone requires a showing of reasonable suspicion.
Defendant-Appellant Miguel Cano was arrested for carrying cocaine as he attempted to cross into the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Following his arrest, a Customs and Border Protection official seized Cano's cell phone and searched it, first manually and then using software that accesses all text messages, contacts, call logs, media, and application data. When Cano moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless searches of his cell phone, the district court held that the searches were valid under the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. Cano was convicted. On appeal, Cano argued that the warrantless searches of his cellphone violated the Fourth Amendment.
Should the evidence obtained from the warrantless searches of defendant’s cellphone have been suppressed?
The Court reversed the district court's order denying the defendant's motion to suppress evidence obtained from warrantless searches of his cell phone by Customs and Border Protection officials, and vacated his conviction for importing cocaine. Applying United States v. Cotterman, 709 F.3d 952 (9th Cir. 2013), the Court held that manual cell phone searches may be conducted by border officials without reasonable suspicion but that forensic cell phone searches required reasonable suspicion. The Court clarified Cotterman by holding that "reasonable suspicion" in this context meant that officials must reasonably suspect that the cell phone contained digital contraband. The Court further concluded that cell phone searches at the border, whether manual or forensic, must be limited in scope to whether the phone contained digital contraband; and that a broader search for evidence of a crime cannot be justified by the purposes of the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Moreover, the Court held that the border search exception did not justify the agent's recording of the phone numbers and text messages for further processing, because that action had no connection to ensuring that the phone lacked digital contraband.