The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures when you are inside the borders of the United States. But what happens to your constitutional right to privacy in your personal belongings when you leave or enter the country? Can government officials carve out an exception to water down your Fourth Amendment rights? If so, is there any limit on how intrusive they can be?

Are your Fourth Amendment Rights lessened when you cross into the United States?

The position of the federal government has been that you do not receive the same protection from unreasonable searches and seizures at least when you are entering the country. The rationale behind this position is that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing people from bringing illegal materials into the country, such as drugs or child pornography. This can mean seizing and retaining materials for an indefinite period of time.

Is there any limit on the government’s search and seizure authority at the border?

While protecting against illicit importation may sound reasonable on superficial examination, the argument that the Fourth Amendment does not apply at all at the border begins to break down under closer scrutiny.

The main argument in favor of extending Fourth Amendment protection to travelers coming into the United States is that if this protection does not exist then it opens the door to potential abuse of searches and seizures for other than legally compelling reasons, such as political considerations.

For example, if someone coming into the country has a personal relationship or business connections with a person whom the government is investigating or has accused of a crime, privacy advocates claim that that alone does not justify the government’s use of search and seizure methods as a “fishing expedition” to look for evidence of illegality in those connections.

In a recent incident, the federal government ran afoul of privacy right concerns when it seized a laptop computer owned by a South Korean national who the government suspected of attempting to transfer sensitive aircraft technology to Iran. A federal district court judge ruled that the search in question went too far to be considered a routine inspection, and excluded the computer as evidence in the government’s case against the man.

The essence of the judge’s opinion was that the government cannot treat a personal computer being brought into the country the same way that it would a closed container in a car for purposes of making a search without a warrant. Such a search is impermissible when there is not sufficient grounds to suspect that its possessor is engaged in an ongoing or imminent criminal act. Furthermore, transporting the computer to another location 150 miles away in order to copy its hard drive was also beyond the definition of a “routine” inspection.

The otherwise legitimate interest of the government in combating crime or protecting national security is not absolute, even in places such as border crossings where the government may argue that Fourth Amendment rights are attenuated or even non-existent. It is the job of  the Oklahoma criminal defense attorneys at the Hunsucker Legal Group to ensure that their clients’ constitutional rights to privacy in their persons and belongings are respected to the maximum extent possible, no matter where they are or where they are going.  For your free consultation, contact us today at 405-231-5600 or submit our online form.