Reasonable suspicion is not needed for customs officials to search a laptop or other personal electronic storage devices at the border.
On July 17, 2005, Michael Arnold arrived at Los Angeles International Airport ("LAX") after a nearly twenty-hour flight from the Philippines. After retrieving his luggage from the baggage claim, Arnold proceeded to customs. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol ("CBP") Officer Laura Peng first saw Arnold while he was in line waiting to go through the checkpoint and selected him for secondary questioning. Peng then inspected Arnold's luggage, which contained his laptop computer, a separate hard drive, a computer flash drive or USB drive, and six compact discs. Peng instructed Arnold to turn on the computer so she could see if it was functioning. While the computer was booting up, Peng turned it over to her colleague, CBP Officer John Roberts, and continued to inspect Arnold's luggage. When the computer has booted up, the desktop displayed numerous icons and folders. The officers clicked on a photograph folder, opened the files, and viewed the photos therein including one that depicted two nude women. They examined the computer equipment and found numerous images depicting what they believed to be child pornography. The officers seized the computer and storage devices but released Arnold. Two weeks later, federal agents obtained a warrant. A grand jury charged Arnold with engaging in child pornography in a foreign place and thereby transporting it to the United States. Arnold filed a motion to suppress arguing that the government conducted the search without reasonable suspicion. The district court granted the motion to suppress, finding that reasonable suspicion was necessary to search the laptop and the government had failed to meet the burden of showing reasonable suspicion to search. On appeal, the government countered that reasonable suspicion was not required under the Fourth Amendment because of the border-search doctrine and if reasonable suspicion were necessary, that it was present in this case.
Can customs officers examine the electronic contents of a passenger's laptop computer without reasonable suspicion?
The Court ruled that reasonable suspicion is not needed for customs officials to search a laptop or other personal electronic storage devices at the border. According to the Court, a customs search at the airport was the equivalent of a search at the border, where a warrantless search of any container, especially one that was readily mobile, was permitted. The Court held that there was nothing particularly offensive or onerous about a search of personal computer drives. As such, the Court found that the district court's holding that particularized suspicion was required to search a laptop, based on cases involving the search of the person, was erroneous.