The Mayor of Stockton, California was detained for “not more than 25 minutes” by US Customs officials in San Francisco last week upon return from a trip to China. The Mayor was returning from a conference in China when he was sent off to secondary inspection, at which point his phone and computers were seized. He claims that his release from the inspection was contingent upon providing the officers with the necessary passwords to access the devices seized. And, a few days later, the devices have yet to be returned. A follow-up report claims that it “was not a random stop” and that the Mayor is under investigation, though no details on what that investigation entails.
Putting aside the part where Mayor Silva Godwin’s the discussion in his initial statement, the detainment and seizure is a useful and disconcerting reminder that even as a citizen returning home to the USA rights are somewhat limited. A warrant is not generally required at the border. Things are a bit different under the 9th Circuit (which includes California) where United States v. Cotterman, 709 F.3d 952, 957 (9th Cir. 2013)(en banc) essentially ruled that reasonable suspicion is required before such a forensic search – including compelling the disclosure of passwords – can be pursued. Apparently the officers in San Francisco either are not too worried about that ruling or believe there is reason for that search. And there are a number of rulings which suggest that compelling password disclosure violates the 5th amendment (including this one just a few weeks ago) but the applicability at the border is questionable.
I don’t know if or why the Mayor of Stockton is under investigation. I don’t really care. But the border search thing is sketchy as hell. Especially if they’re really compelling password disclosure after the relevant court said that was a no-go.
On the plus side, makes my brief detention & search a few months back seem relatively harmless. I didn’t lose my computer that day for an indeterminate period of time.
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