Are there limits imposed on personal searches at the U.S. border?

On Behalf of | May 18, 2015 | Federal Drug Trafficking

If you’re an American passport holder who has spent any appreciable amount of time traveling internationally, you’ve likely asked yourself the question that is posed in the headline above.

Maybe it was a trip coming back from Europe. It could just as easily have been the returning leg of a journey to Asia, though, or perhaps to a country in South America.

Maybe you flew back to the United States. Perhaps you drove a car to the border. It doesn’t matter. What you most remember about the experience — and likely you can conjure up such a memory — is your firm conviction that disparate treatment was being doled out by customs and immigration officials as they interacted with various returnees.

What that might have meant in your case — and some people report multiple occurrences of such a happening — is that you quite clearly got the brunt end of the stick, with a seemingly disinterested agent who casually waved through a number of people before you suddenly springing into action upon sight of your personal belongings.

And there you stood, as a coterie of agents exhaustively combed through your effects, seemingly guided by nothing other than random impulse.

Is there no limit to what they can search through?

Put another way: What exactly does the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure mean at an American border checkpoint? Do mainstream and otherwise applicable considerations relating to probable cause and the reasonable suspicion of ongoing criminal activity guide search efforts in the same way they do at points inside the country?

These are materially important questions, to be sure, and they were prominently visited in a recent federal case involving a border search.

That case holding, along with others that have issued in courts across the country, is immediately relevant to every American citizen, from Florida to California.

We will take a closer look at how some courts are responding to border search activities in our next blog post.

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