Seyfarth Synopsis: Although longstanding policy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorizes searches of electronic devices in the possession of travelers arriving in the United States, recent reports of such searches have heightened businesses’ concerns when their employees travel. In the event of such a search, this guidance informs employees about what they can expect, and provides employers with recommendations to ensure against loss, corruption or misuse of company information.
United States’ Customs laws and regulations (See, 8 U.S.C. § 1582, 19 C.F.R § 162.6) authorize customs officers to inspect, search and/or detain any person, baggage, and/or merchandise arriving in, and or departing from, the United States. This authority extends to inspections, searches and temporary detentions of electronic devices possessed by travelers, including mobile telephones, tablets, and laptop computers. Increasingly searches are becoming more common, and employees traveling with company data and/or information should carry this guidance when returning from foreign travel. “Supreme Court decisions have upheld the doctrine that CBP’s search authority is unique and does not violate the fourth amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This exception allows CBP to conduct “routine” searches on luggage, devices, vehicles or persons without a warrant. “However, with this authority, CBP expects all of its officers to conduct their duties in a professional manner, and treat each traveler respectfully.”
Who May Be Chosen for an Inspection
United States Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) guidance states that a variety of circumstances can lead agents to select a traveler for inspection, search and/or detention of electronic devices, including: travelers holding incomplete travel documents or lacking proper documents and/or visa; travelers who have previously violated a law that CBP enforces; travelers with a name that matches a person of interest in government enforcement databases; and/or travelers randomly selected for such a search. Selection for a search does not necessarily mean that CBP believes that you have done something wrong. A 2012 CBP Directive noted that “in the course of a border search, with or without individualized suspicion, an Officer may examine electronic devices and may review and analyze the information encountered at the border”.
At this time, CBP has not articulated policies that consider a traveler’s nationality as a factor supporting a search; however, not all criteria applied by CBP have been made public. CBP has also not disclosed whether travel to certain countries could draw scrutiny. There have been reports of foreign visitors as well as United States citizens being subjected to inspections.
What Will Occur During the Search
The manner in which a search is conducted may vary widely depending on a number of factors. A customs official may simply conduct a search through the device and then return it to you. At the other times, CBP may elect to take temporary custody (‘detention’) of the device for further examination. If CBP decides to detain your electronic devices, the customs officer will issue you a written receipt (Form 6051-D), which will detail what items are being detained, who at CBP will be your point of contact, and your own contact information in order to facilitate return of the items within a reasonable time.