When arriving back in the United States, many people may feel a sense of safety, knowing they are back in the land of the free. Increasingly, however, US citizens are finding themselves the victims of intrusive government searches and seizures of mobile media devices. As the number of cases increases, is your phone safe when crossing U.S. borders? Maybe not.
An Illegal Search and Seizure?
In February, Rejhane Lazoja, a U.S. citizen from Staten Island, New York, was stopped at Newark Airport by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents after she landed aboard a flight from Switzerland. Taken into a screening room, CBP agents demanded Lazoja provide them with her cell phone and passwords – something she flatly refused. After repeated attempts by the officers, the phone was confiscated and the data upon it duplicated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The phone was never returned, nor were any details about what the data was used for revealed.
Lazoja later contacted the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and has since launched a lawsuit against both DHS and the CBP in federal court, citing a “Motion to Return Property” under Rule 41(g) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
According to Lazoja’s attorneys, the federal government violated her rights. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Border Search Exception
CBP conducts their searches using something known as a “border search exception.” This process allows law enforcement to circumvent the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires a warrant to carry out a search and seizure. This, courts argue, is permissible at ports of entry for national security.
A Worrying Trend
Ms. Lazoja’s case is unfortunately not an isolated incident. In a worrying trend, under the Trump administration phone and digital-device searches and seizures have skyrocketed. Under new policies recently enacted, over 5,000 devices were searched by CBP in just February 2017 alone. CBP has released data indicating they performed 23,877 electronic media searches in 2016 – representing .061 percent of international arrivals. In 2015, the percentage was .0012 percent, indicating a steep rate of increase.
What Can You Do If This Happens to You?
If you find yourself in a situation where CBP seizes your phone, tablet or other media device at the U.S. border, you should immediately contact Piotrowski Law.
Chad Piotrowski has an extensive background in aggressively defending his clients from charges ranging from marijuana possession to armed drug trafficking and murder. A former prosecutor in Miami-Dade County, Chad Piotrowski has the unique ability to anticipate prosecution strategies to help build a solid defense to help obtain the best possible outcome for his clients. Chad also has very strong beliefs concerning CBP and DHS seizures of U.S. citizen’s mobile devices – and vows to fight to protect the interests and privacy of those affected.