These gadgets are brought everywhere we go, even when we go on local or international trips. Homeland security agents who guard borders may sometimes go overboard and inspect the content of a traveler’s electronic devices. They go to a point where they attempt to open password protected files that you bring along in your travel. Howard Wesley Cotterman’s gadget wasn’t an exemption when agents of Homeland security attempted to force open his encrypted files on his laptop. He challenged the action in court and raised the 4th amendment.
The Opinion of the Majority
The Court of Appeals for the 9th district en banc upheld the 4th amendment and reversed the ruling of Arizona District Judge Raner C. Collins’ June 19th, 2012 decision last March 8th, 2013. The decision makes the Homeland Security agents actions as a violation of the Bill of Rights for opening encrypted files that Cotterman has inside his laptop.
The security personnel pointed out that the 4th amendment doesn’t apply on borders and will inspect anything if they have a suspicion that someone is in violation of a law. Eleven judges who formulated the opinion on it were Chief Circuit Judge Alex Koniznski, Circuit Judges Sidney R. Thomas, M. Margaret McKeown, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Raymond C. Fisher, Ronald M. Gould, Richard R. Clifton, Consuelo M. Callahan, Milan Smith Jr., Mary H. Murguia and Morgan Christen. Judge Callahan made a partial concurrence and a partial dissent while Judge Milan Smith Jr. made a dissent on the body’s overall opinion.
Passages from the Opinion
The opinion written by Judge McKeown pointed out that, “It is commonplace for business travelers, and casual computer users, students and others to password protect their files. Law enforcement ‘cannot rely solely on factors that would apply to many law-abiding citizens,’ … and password protection is ubiquitous. National standards require that users of mobile electronic devices password protect their files…. Computer users are routinely advised—and in some cases, required by employers—to protect their files when traveling overseas….”
Examination beyond Borders
Cotterman was accused of child molestation and was suspected of bringing in pornographic materials in the US-Mexico border. The forensic examination that lead to his arrest was done 170 miles away from the border that further violated his right to privacy. When an initial inspection is done at the border and no violation is caught there, there’s no need to make a further examination beyond it.
Preventing a Precedent
The dissenting opinion presented by Judge Smith focused on the doctrine of reasonable suspicion, which requires, “To make a property search that is sufficient, comprehensive and intrusive.” A person who is reasonably suspected to commit an offense may be thoroughly inspected to the point of intrusion of their privacy. The judges that upheld the 4th amendment believe that the intrusion should not include the information that a person secures with a password. If they uphold the district court’s decision, it will create a precedent that will become the sole basis of decrypting files that normal businessmen bring in their travels abroad.
The Right Way and the Wrong Way
The decision that the 9th district Appellate Court is controversial considering that there are split opinions made toward it. People regularly travel in America and electronic information from email to fax can move from one location to another at light speed. People who travel have the right to put passwords on important documents if they want to secure the information that’s on it. If they decided against the 4th amendment, chances are, every time a person travels from one place to another, they’ll have to painstakingly remove important files first from their electronic devices which may compromise their documents. The court also pointed out that if there’s any necessity, the court can issue a warrant to open the clouds where secure information is kept and use it against an individual. A warrant makes it lawful and valid as long as there’s probable cause.
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