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Gov't searches of phones, computers at border skyrockets to alarming new levels, lawsuit claims

Plaintiffs argue the warrantless searches are unconstitutional

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Federal government searches of travelers' cellphones and computers has skyrocketed to alarming levels, according to a new lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday.

What are the details?

The lawsuit claims that since 2015, government searches of travelers' personal technology items has quadrupled in what amounts to a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments because the searches are conducted without a warrant.

To make matters worse, the lawsuit claims the searches "were being done for reasons beyond customs and immigration enforcement," The Associated Press reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organizations that filed the lawsuit, say Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents often conduct "general law enforcement" searches to gather intelligence, advance criminal investigations, and assist in the enforcement of bankruptcy, tax, consumer-protection, and even environmental law.

However, the government maintains searches are both rare and only conducted in the interest of traveler safety.

Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU attorney, disagrees.

"We are alarmed by the extent to which the government is using the pretext of the border to make an end-run around the Constitution," Wessler told NBC News. "Last year, CBP conducted more than 33,000 border device searches, almost four times the number from just three years earlier. That is not rare. But even if it were, it's still unconstitutional."

What else?

Still, the government argues the "border search exemption" — which allows almost limitless searches within 100 miles of the U.S. border — permits customs agents to conduct the warrantless searches. The Supreme Court has routinely upheld this exemption with the exception of vehicle searches outside of checkpoints.

Plaintiffs are asking that the warrantless searches end. Federal Judge Denise J. Casper will hear the case this July.

One last thing…
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