The Fourth Circuit Appeals Court has handed down a decision [PDF] suggesting the Fourth Amendment might still provide some minimal protection at our nation's borders. Most rights are considered to be waived -- especially those affecting privacy -- thanks to a prevailing national security interest that is seldom challenged by courts. Two years ago, a California federal court looked at the Supreme Court's Riley decision (which instituted a warrant requirement for cellphone searches) and decided that simply didn't apply within 100 miles of US borders.
This precedential decision doesn't cut the government quite as much slack. While it recognizes border security is a national priority, it's not as quick to give federal agencies a free pass on Fourth Amendment exceptions. The underlying facts make it a less-than-ideal challenge, but even so, the court finds enough to work with in the Riley decision to suggest not all border searches should be suspicionless.
Hamza Kolsuz, the appellant, had been caught twice exiting the country with firearms parts in his luggage. Those incidents occurred in 2012 and 2013. The parts were seized both times, with federal agents explaining licensing requirements but choosing not to arrest Kolsuz for violating federal law.
In 2016, the same thing happened again. Agents searched his luggage and found firearms parts. One agent then performed a cursory examination of the phone Kolsuz was carrying. This search the court has zero issues with. It's easily covered by the border search exception.
At a border – or at a border’s “functional equivalent,” like the international airport at which Kolsuz was intercepted – government agents may conduct “routine” searches and seizures of persons and property without a warrant or any individualized suspicion.
Not much Fourth to be had there and the underlying circumstances -- the discovery of more firearms parts being moved out the country without proper export licenses -- gave the agents more reasonable suspicion than they actually needed.
But it wasn't the only search performed on Kolsuz's phone. An offsite forensic search followed the airport search.
At that point, CBP Special Agent Adam Coppolo initiated the second search of Kolsuz’s phone, this one commonly known as a “forensic” search. Coppolo first transported the phone approximately four miles from Dulles to the Homeland Security Investigations office in Sterling, Virginia. There, Computer Forensic Agent Michael Del Vacchio attached the phone to a Cellebrite Physical Analyzer, which extracts data from electronic devices, and conducted an advanced logical file system extraction. The phone remained in airplane mode throughout, so the forensic examination did not reach data stored remotely – or “in the cloud” – and was instead limited to data stored on the phone itself. Even so, the data extraction process lasted for a full month, and yielded an 896- page report that included Kolsuz’s personal contact lists, emails, messenger conversations, photographs, videos, calendar, web browsing history, and call logs, along with a history of Kolsuz’s physical location down to precise GPS coordinates.
This search was challenged, with Kolsuz arguing the phone was no longer being searched under the border exception, but rather as "cident to arrest," subject to the Supreme Court's Riley decision. The court agrees… to a point. It doesn't find that taking the phone offsite for a deeper search affected the "border search" nexus. The search was still related to the transnational crime of weapons smuggling. It's the intrusiveness of the search that troubles the court.
We also agree with the district court that under Riley, the forensic examination of Kolsuz’s phone must be considered a nonroutine border search, requiring some measure of individualized suspicion.
It's not quite a warrant requirement, but it does suggest federal agents should no longer perform highly-intrusive searches without justification. However, the court won't go as far as to institute a warrant requirement.
What precisely that standard should be – whether reasonable suspicion is enough, as the district court concluded, or whether there must be a warrant based on probable cause, as Kolsuz suggests – is a question we need not resolve: Because the agents who conducted the search reasonably relied on precedent holding that no warrant was required, suppression of the report would be inappropriate even if we disagreed.
It's not a hugely helpful decision but it does show this court isn't willing to allow the border search exception to continue to expand, swallowing up the few shreds of Fourth Amendment that remain. Forensic searches must be justified with at least particularized reasonable suspicion, which is more than other courts have been willing to hold.