Federal judges made a serious mistake taking away border agents’ power to search computers that people bring into the country, says Roy Altman, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami.
The ruling by the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in California “stripped U.S. border agents of one of their most effective tools,” Altman writes in The Wall Street Journal.
The decision made a new rule that will forbid federal agents from stopping a person at the border and looking through his/her computer unless the agents have reasonable suspicion that the computer contains evidence of a crime, he says.
“The Ninth Circuit's new rule flies in the face of more than a century of Supreme Court jurisprudence and misapplies the balancing test that typically governs the legality of border searches or seizures,” he writes.
“Most important, the rule will severely restrict the ability of federal agents to protect America's borders.”
The case surrounded the 2007 seizure of Howard Cotterman’s computer on the Arizona/Mexico border. Agents ran a check and found Cotterman had a 15-year-old conviction for child molesting. They sent his computer to a lab after they discovered its contents were password-protected.
A forensic examiner found nearly 400 images of child pornography on the computer, most of them showing Cotterman molesting a girl who appeared to be under-10 years old. A judge threw out child molestation charges against Cotterman agreeing with his stance that the agents did not have reasonable suspicion to size the computer.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court overturned the ruling, but the entire court upheld it.
“Here's hoping that the Supreme Court takes the opportunity presented by this ‘circuit split’ to unplug the Ninth Circuit's computer ruling,” writes Altman, who stressed his views are not necessarily those of the Justice Department.
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