Monday, July 24, 2006

U.S. v. Romm (9th Cir. - July 24, 2006)

I'm a little disturbed about this case. Judge Bea holds that it's a permissible border search for the authorities to turn on your computer and look through it -- without probable cause -- for evidence of a crime.

This may go too far for me. This case is a good example of the resulting problem. When Romm crosses the border, the authorities turn on his computer in order to search for child pornography. After an extensive search, they discover some deleted pictures in his internet cache, and charge him with possession. The defendant contests the legality of the search, the trial court upholds it, and Judge Bea affirms.

I'm fine with routine border searches for drugs, weapons, and the like. That seems reasonable to me. But I'm less keen on searches of your papers (including those in your computer), which I think the Founders (rightly) thought should be more secure. Sure, they can turn on your computer to see if it's a bomb. But going through it to examine its actual contents seems different. And I find it even less reasonable for border authorities to conduct routine intrusive searches, without probable cause, for deleted files -- stuff that you're deliberately trying not to bring into the country.

There are some doctrinal complexities in this particular case that perhaps make it a bad vehicle in which to articulate the proper vision of a permissible border search; in addition, Judge Bea expressly doesn't address one of the legality issues raised by the defendant only in his reply. Still, I'm concerned about the flip manner in which Judge Bea upholds the validity of the search here, particularly the failure to recognize that a search at the border of information content, especially deleted content, is substantially and qualitatively different than the types of border search traditionally conducted and jurisprudentially accepted.

So whenever you leave the country, from now on, remember that the authorities can look at anything on your laptop. Anything. Even if you deleted it. Pretty scary, I think. Not my idea of a presumptively "reasonable" search.